The confusion over who should pay the rail fare for migrants returning home during the lockdown ought to have been avoided. A lack of clarity on this score caused the Opposition parties to try and win cheap publicity.
The Railways, which ran special trains from a few designated places to transport tens of thousands of migrants to return to their villages from a few urban centres, were initially unwilling to foot the entire bill. Following criticism on social media and by a couple of opposition leaders, it was made clear that the Railways will pay 85 per cent of the costs while the respective States will contribute the remaining fifteen per cent. This clarification came after at least three States, namely – Maharashtra, Kerala and Rajasthan had forced the migrants to pay their own fare. Given that the migrants had suffered a complete loss of income due to the lockdown, it was cruel to ask them to pay for their journey home. However, unmindful of the fact that the party-run States had charged the migrants for travelling home, Sonia Gandhi sought to score brownie points, declaring triumphantly that her party would pay the fare of all migrants. This show of generosity was not necessary since the Centre and the States had agreed to share the costs already. But she invited a sharp putdown for her too-clever-by-half intervention, with a ruling party spokesman saying that they did not want India’s villages to suffer the fate of Italy.
Which raises the relevant question about the timing of the return of migrants to villages at the fag-end of the lockdown. Once the economy is reopened it would need the same migrants back on their jobs, wouldn’t it?