NEW DELHI: The Indian Railways has issued a set of guidelines for Shramik Special trains being run to ferry the migrants stranded across the country, saying the trains will ply only if they have 90 per cent occupancy and the "states should collect the ticket fare", inviting fierce criticism for charging for their services.
A provision in the SOP, which drew a good deal of flak, said the "local state government shall handover the tickets for these passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to Railways."
"If you are stuck abroad during this COVID crisis this government will fly you back for free but if you are a migrant worker stranded in another state be prepared to cough up the cost of travel (with social distancing cost added). Where did 'PM Cares' go? Like I said earlier you were better off getting stranded overseas & flown back home!," tweeted NC leader Omar Abdullah.
In the SOP, the railways said the responsibility for food, security, health scanning, providing tickets to the stranded will be with the state from which the train is originating.
It has however taken the burden of providing one meal to passengers whose journey will be of 12 hours or more.
While railways has refused to comment on the issue of payments, stating it is a state matter, sources said Jharkhand, which has received two trains till now, has paid its dues.
Originating states like Rajasthan and Telangana are also paying for the travel of workers in their states.
Gujarat, the sources said, has roped in an NGO to pay for part of the services.
However, they said, Maharashtra is making the migrants pay some amount of the fare.
In fact, Maharashtra Minister Nitin Raut wrote to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, requesting him to bear the cost of ticket.
Railways is charging the fare of sleeper class tickets, plus a super-fast charge of Rs30 and an additional charge of Rs20 for the Shramik Specials.
Hitting out at the Union government for burdening the states, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said the situation with migrant workers was a result of the Centre's abrupt announcement of a lockdown.
"It is very unfair that the entire responsibility has been shifted to state governments. This problem was not caused by states. In Parliament, the government said it bore the entire cost of repatriating Indians stuck abroad. In the same manner, the migrants should have been sent back."
"Anyway, thousands of crores have been directed to PM-CARES," Yechury told PTI.
Railways rolled out the special trains on Friday.
Normally, it said in the guidelines, the trains will be run for distances more than 500 km and will not stop at any station before the destination.
Each train with full-length composition with social distancing (not counting the middle berths) can carry about 1,200 passengers.
"The originating state shall plan the group of travellers accordingly. The occupancy of a train should not be less than 90 per cent. Railways shall print train tickets to the specified destination, as per the number of passengers indicated by originating state and hand them over to the local state government authority."
"The local state government authority shall handover tickets to passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to Railways," the guidelines added.
The state government shall issue food packets and drinking water at the originating points, it said.
It will be mandatory for all passengers to wear face covers.
"The originating state will encourage all passengers to download and use Aarogya Setu App," it said.
At the destination, passengers will be received by state government authorities, who would arrange for their screening, quarantine, if necessary, and further travel.
"Railways reserves the right to discontinue Shramik Special train operations if safety, security and hygiene protocols are flouted at any stage," the guidelines issued to all zonal general managers said.
Railways has denied charging the migrants and said they are dealing only with state governments.
And officials said it was not possible to waive these charges as the national transporter was incurring running charges as well as the cost of meals.
"Our trains are coming back empty. The charges we have levied are nominal," an official said.
However, criticising the decision to charge for the travels, SP leader Akhilesh Yadav said exploiting the poor during a disaster is the "job of money lenders, not the government".
"The news of the BJP government taking money from the poor, helpless labourers going back home by train is very shameful.
It has become clear that the BJP, which pardons billions to capitalists, is with the rich and against the poor.
Exploiting during a disaster is the job of money lenders, not the government," he tweeted in Hindi.
Karnataka Congress president D K Shivakumar said his party was ready to provide aid to the state government for payment of the train fare.
"Giving Rs1 crore cheque to KSRTC from the KPCC for ensuring Free Transport to our working-class & labour people who are suffering to reach home because of the rates being charged by the Karnataka Govt. Govt should let us know if they need more, the KPCC will fulfil that as well," he tweeted.
Railways ran five trains on Friday, the first day of operations of the Shramik Specials, followed by 10 on Saturday.
For Sunday, it has planned 25 trains.
However, a consolidated list of trains that ran on Sunday is still not available.
On Monday, it will run its first train to West Bengal.