Fact Check: No, the Centre Isn't Paying for Migrant Workers' Train Journeys Home

Lav Agarwal gave a rather cryptic – and misleading – explanation on Monday.

New Delhi: As the Centre faced heat from the opposition over the Indian Railways asking migrant labourers making their way home to pay for train tickets, the Union health ministry’s joint secretary Lav Agarwal gave a cryptic explanation on Monday.

“Be it the government of India or the Railways, we have not talked about charging from workers. Eighty-five percent of the transportation cost is borne by the Railways, while states have to bear 15% of the cost,” he told reporters.

Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, understandably, latched on to Agarwal’s statement to attack opposition parties. Many of them pedalled the notion that migrant workers were not being charged at all, even as many reports showed that those who boarded the special “Shramik Special” trains to ferry the workers to their native states had already paid for their tickets.

Many others, too, took Agarwal’s statement at face value and thought that the raging political row was blown out of proportion.

Soon BJP leaders like B.L. Santosh and Sambit Patra, and some television channels, almost simultaneously, accused Kerala, Maharashtra and Rajasthan – and other states which were governed by opposition parties – of charging rail fare from the migrants.

What is the reality? Why were the migrant labourers being charged for their rail journey if, as Agarwal said, the Centre and the state governments were already footing the bill? What was the 85:15 formula that Agarwal spoke of?

The Wire breaks it down.

How did the matter come to light?

Lakhs of migrant workers have been stranded without work or proper shelter ever since the nationwide lockdown was imposed. There was a stream of visuals of desperate workers walking several hundred kilometres towards their homes. The Union government was criticised by many for not arranging travel facilities for these informal sector workers before imposing a lockdown.

On May 1, the government finally buckled under pressure from state governments and opposition parties, and allowed the movement of migrant workers by organising special trains for them.

However, the Indian Railways released travel guidelines soon after the decision, inviting further criticism.  The guidelines made the following points:

“Railways shall print tickets to the specified destination, as per number of passengers indicated by the originating state and hand them over to the local state government authority. The local state government authority shall handover the tickets to the passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to the Railways.”

The railway guidelines.

That the Centre was charging the migrant workers, even as it had brought back many stranded tourists from abroad for free, generated much flak. The opposition parties labelled the union government for being “insensitive and inhuman” for making the workers pay despite having known that a majority of them had absolutely no money left after somehow sustaining through the lockdown.

The Centre’s explanation: ’85:15 formula’

Caught on the back foot, the Centre attempted to do some damage control. This is when Agarwal gave his cryptic clarification.

Did it mean that the Indian Railways ran the “Shramik Special” trains for free? No.

There has been no clarification from the Indian Railways or the Centre ever since Agarwal gave his statement. What the 85:15 formula meant, as can be inferred from BJP leader Sambit Patra who defended the government on the issue in a television show, is that the notional subsidy that the Indian Railways gave to the “Shramik Special” passengers was 85% of the total cost of travel.

For regular train journeys, the Railways recovers around 53% of the total money spent through sleeper class ticket fares, which means the subsidy given to the passengers is 47% of the total cost involved.

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In this context, Patra had an explanation how the Centre bore 85% of the travel costs in the case of Shramik Special trains. Since these special trains for migrant workers were supposed to carry not more than 1,200 passengers, as had been mandated by the Indian Railways guidelines to maintain social distancing norms, and were supposed to come back to their originating stations empty, the subsidy it gave to the passengers was calculated to be around 85%.

This means that the printed fares on the tickets reflected 15% of the total cost incurred by the Railways, and the state governments are supposed to reimburse that amount to the Railways in the due course of time. It doesn’t mean that the Centre is paying 85% of the ticket price

Who pays for the tickets?

As is clear, despite claiming that the Centre is bearing 85% of the unsubsidised ticket costs, it is not shelling out an extra penny from its reserves. It has not committed to paying anything upfront at the moment.

The Centre, has in fact, shifted the burden entirely to the state governments, who had been requesting the Union government to arrange for transportation of migrant workers.

Also read: Understanding the Implications of the COVID-19 Lockdown on Migrant Workers’ Children

Patra said that the state governments were free to reimburse the Railways by either charging the distressed migrant workers or by digging into their own pockets. He said that UP, Tripura and other BJP-ruled states have already announced that they would foot the bill, and attacked Congress-ruled states for not doing so. However, even this decision by the BJP-ruled states came as an afterthought, a day after the Congress announced that its state units will pay for the migrant workers’ tickets.

By the time the BJP-ruled states announced their decision, non-BJP ruled states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh had already said that they won’t charge the workers and were ready to reimburse the Railways from their state budget.

Moreover, contrary to Patra’s claim, the Gujarat government had been charging migrant workers the rail fare.

Thus, irrespective of what Agarwal attempted to project, the rail travel allowed for migrant workers is anything but free.

Is the ticket fare for Shramik Special lower than usual?

No. In fact, most reports suggest that the ticket fares are higher than usual, as the Railways has imposed an additional Rs 50 on the normal sleeper class fares. The additional charge is now being informally called as the “corona surcharge” by many.

Speaking on the same show in which Patra was a panelist, Swaraj Abhiyan leader Yogendra Yadav gave a concrete example. The socialist leader showed a copy of the ticket for a special train that transported workers from Vasai near Mumbai to Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. He said the usual sleeper class fare charged by the Railways is anywhere between Rs 660 to Rs 680. However, the workers were charged Rs 740 for travelling in the special train.

Yadav said had “the 85% story was true, as was being told through the day”, then the fare would have been only 15% of Rs 680, the normal fare in this case. “So, a worker would have paid a little over Rs 100. But what is being charged now – Rs 740,” he explained.

Similarly, while the normal fare from Kerala to Jharkhand is around Rs 800, the workers were asked to pay Rs 850. In the case of the train that ran from Nashik to Bhopal, workers were charged Rs 350, as against Rs 300 during normal times.

Also read: Odisha Govt Ill-Prepared to Handle the Lakhs of Migrant Workers Coming Home

The Centre has passed the buck to the state governments cleverly without giving a straightforward answer to the questions raised. Its supporters on social media and elsewhere used Agarwal’s statement to mislead the public.

The Centre’s indecisiveness and largely passive responses to the sufferings of the migrant workers came to the fore even after it allowed rail and bus travel for them. Even as the Railways organised the first lot of special trains,  the union home secretary Ajay Bhalla, on May 3, wrote to chief secretaries of all states that only those workers who are stranded somewhere between their workplaces and home will be allowed to board the special trains, creating further confusion. What will those workers who abided by the lockdown measures but have been driven to abject penury in the last few days do? All of them have expressed their wish to be taken back to their villages. Does the Modi government have a plan for them?

The Modi government’s attempt to hoodwink the Indian public on the issue of rail fare reflects a similar inattentiveness, if not indifference.