- Nitish Kumar pushed to fringe in his policy on migrant workers
- Top leaders of his ally, the BJP, accused him of a heartless approach
- Tejashwi Yadav offered to pay for all the passengers of 50 trains
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has been pushed to the fringe in his policy on migrant workers from Bihar stranded in other parts of the country, today announced that each worker returning home by train will be reimbursed the full ticket fare and will get an additional aid of Rs 500 to ensure they are not out of pocket for their journey home. "We took the decision to ensure free journey back home for our students and now, a similar facility is being extended to migrants labourers too," said Mr Kumar.
The Bihar leader's intervention comes after he has been accused - not just by the opposition but by top leaders of his ally, the BJP - of a heartless approach. In recent weeks, as other states petitioned the centre to repatriate their workers, Mr Kumar urged they remain where they are; they aren't sufficient facilities, he argued, to ensure the workers are isolated for 14 days, as required, upon their return. While his counterparts from states like Uttar Pradesh organised buses to bring back students and workers from other cities, Mr Kumar held out for trains that would be facilitated by the union government.
Mr Kumar's revised stand came hours after Tejashwi Yadav, the 30-year-old leader of Bihar's main opposition party, offered to pay for all the passengers of 50 trains.
"Respected Nitish Kumar-ji, the RJD is ready to bear the fare on behalf of poor labourers for 50 special trains because a 'double engine government' is not capable (of doing that). Please ensure arrangements at the earliest. Sushil Modi-ji, tell us the full amount. The cheque will be sent immediately. Anyway, you are fond of looking at the ledger," Mr Yadav tweeted in Hindi.
When a countrywide lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24 with just four hours' notice, lakhs of migrant workers were stuck in the cities where they labour as daily wagers. With their earnings cut off abruptly, many of them decided to head home. The complete unavailability of any public transport meant they had to walk, hundreds of kilometres, in some case, without food or water, occasionally carrying a child or two in their arms, to return to their villages.
Last Friday, after the PM's party reportedly concluded that the political backlash was building up to a worrying swell, the government announced that special trains would ferry migrant workers back home. Social distancing would be enforced through limited seating; the passengers had to be screened by officials to ensure they were not infected with coronavirus before they were allowed at stations, and upon their arrival, it was upto the receiving state government to quarantine them before they could reunite with their families.
On Saturday, an order that asked for migrant workers to pay their fares generated a free-range controversy. For citizens who were broke and without shelter, the burden of a ticket price was new indignity, the opposition alleged. This morning, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi said her party would pick up the tab for workers.
Railway officials say that free journeys will lead to massive amounts of people attempting to board trains which will endanger the attempts to control the spread of the pandemic as India starts a graded exit from the lockdown today. Government officials say the Railways is already subsidising 85 per cent of the tickets for the nearly 30 trains that have operated since Friday and that state governments have to chip in for the rest.
State governments that are not led by the BJP have said that they do not have the funds to pay for trains, given the pressure that their finances are under on account of dealing with the pandemic.