NEW DELHI: The Centre on Tuesday issued a new SOP for movement of stranded workers via Shramik Special trains whereby it reduced the role of states from decision-making to mere coordination.
According to the revised Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the consent of receiving states is no longer necessary for trains to pull in with migrant workers.
Besides removing the clause of the consent of receiving states, the new SOP suggested that the centre will take the final call in running of the special trains. Train schedule, stoppages and destination will now be finalised by the Centre, not states as was suggested in the previous SOP issued by Ministry of Railways.
The new SOP comes a week after the Centre accused West Bengal government of blocking the arrival of Shramik trains, a charge denied by the state. The new rules are likely to start another round of confrontation between Centre and states. Goa has already asked the home ministry not to allow trains directly between Delhi and Margao.
“Movement of Shramik special trains shall be permitted by the Ministry of Railways in consultation with Ministry of Home Affairs. All states/Union Territories should designate nodal authorities and make necessary arrangements for receiving and sending stranded persons,” stated the new guidelines.
However, the guidelines issued by Railway Ministry on May 2 for the Shramik special trains said, “The originating state will finalise the requirement of special trains in consultation with receiving states and communicate the requirement of special trains to the nodal officer of Railways…The consent of receiving state shall be obtained by originating state and a copy provided to Railways before departure of train”.
Giving itself the final authority in the running of the Shramik trains, the Centre stated, “The train schedule including stoppages and destination shall be finalised by Ministry of Railways based on the requirements of states/Union Territories for making suitable arrangements for sending and receiving such stranded workers.”
Commenting on the development, railway spokesperson Rajesh Bajpai said, “Consent of terminating state not necessary to run Shramik Special trains. After the new SoP, the implication is that no consent of receiving state is mandatory.”
Besides causing strife between the Centre and states, the new rules may also lead to logistical problems in managing the migrant workers arriving in special trains. Chief Ministers such as Nitish Kumar of Bihar have shared concerns over their inability to sufficiently test and quarantine those returning home.
The states and UTs that are sending migrants will screen all migrant workers before the travel as was the arrangement earlier and only asymptomatic passengers will be allowed to board trains.
On arrival at their destination, the travelling passengers will have to adhere to such health protocols prescribed by the destination state and UT, the new SOP said. Train schedule, protocols for entry and movement of passengers, services to be provided in coaches, and arrangements with states and UTs for booking of tickets shall be publicised by MOR.
During the shutdown that was imposed to contain COVID-19, more than 100 migrant workers have died while walking to their home states—due to accidents and hunger.
The SOP was issued a few hours after Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla wrote to the states, requesting “pro-active coordination between the states and railways” so as to operate more special trains for migrant workers. Bhalla also requested states and UTsto provide more clarity about the departure of trains and buses, saying lack of clarity coupled with rumours had caused unrest among the workers.
“District authorities may be directed to request Ministry of Railways for running trains, where required and ensure that no migrant worker has to resort to walking on roads and railway tracks to reach his destination. As you may be aware, area officers in Ministry of Home Affairs are already assisting state nodal officers and railway nodal officers in movement of stranded labour. We would be happy to facilitate the process further,” according to the communication
The Shramik trains were started after a month of the shutdown and after daily scenes of thousands of migrant workers walking to their home states from different parts of the country became a common sight. The announcement of running special trains at that time was mired by the controversial decision of charging fares from the migrants, a decision which was later withdrawn.