- Sonia Gandhi said it was "disturbing" that centre was charging migrants
- The centre, she said, barely gave a four-hour notice of the lockdown
- The government started running special trains on Friday for migrants
Sonia Gandhi's announcement today that the Congress would pay the train fare for migrants heading home amid the lockdown set up a huge political row, with the government calling it a baseless move that would "mess up the entire system and create chaos". A detailed rebuttal from top sources came with the comment: "We don't want our villages becoming Italy".
"Grand but baseless announcements may help a dejected opposition, but to ensure people get proper help, the government has to ensure systems work with proper processes and full accountability," top sources said after Sonia Gandhi attacked the government for not giving stranded migrants free train rides home when "100 crores" was spent on just one event in Gujarat during the Trump visit and Rs 151 crore had been contributed by the railways to the PM-Cares fund.
"What the Congress President has said doesn't change much on the ground, because railways is already paying for 85 per cent of the fares. Instead of the party, it would have been better if she would have instructed her state governments to not indulge in politics and pay their share," the sources said.
Sonia Gandhi said it was "disturbing" that the centre was charging the migrants for train tickets.
"When our Government can recognise its responsibility by arranging free air travel for our citizens stranded abroad, when the government can spend nearly Rs 100 crores on transport and food etc. for just one public programme in Gujarat, when the Rail Ministry has the largesse to donate Rs 151 Crores to the PM's Corona fund, then why can't these essential members of our nation's fabric be given a fraction of the same courtesy, especially free rail travel, at this hour of acute distress," the Congress chief said.
The centre, she said, barely gave a four-hour notice of the lockdown, so workers and migrant labourers were stuck.
"Post the partition of 1947, this is the first time India witnessed a tragedy with such a massive human cost as thousands of migrant workers and labourers were forced to walk home several hundred kilometres on foot - without food, without medicines, without money, without transportation, without anything except for the desire to return to their families and loved ones," she said, declaring that Congress state units would pay the fare for every needy worker and migrant.
She also posted a video message addressing migrants.
Later, Maharashtra's Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government and the Congress government in Rajasthan said they would pay the train fare for returnees.
Official sources said the centre was bearing the cost of running the trains half empty to ensure social distancing, and also of doctors, safety and railway staff. The states should pay the remaining 15 per cent, they said.
"It is natural for you to think that the central government is being heartless in the issue of migrants' transportation. After all, it's an emotional issue. But sometimes facts are counter-intuitive to emotions," the sources said.
"Because states identify, do health screening and decide the passengers on basis of their need. Doing away with this system would be catastrophic as lakhs of people would start traveling, risking our villages. We surely don't want our villages becoming Italy," said the sources.
Italy is among the worst hit countries in the world with over two lakh coronavirus cases. The government started running special trains on Friday for migrants to travel to their home states with the lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 extended by two weeks.
"The local government authorities shall handover the tickets to the passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and handover the total amount to the railways," the Railways Ministry had said in a circular.