While the Centre has allowed movement of migrant workers in buses, several states have demanded special trains, underlining the sheer numbers of those stranded. According to sources, the Ministry of Railways has also drafted a plan to operate 400 special trains per day, which can be scaled up to 1,000, with a detailed protocol.
While there has been no indication that passenger train services will resume before May 3, the Railways carried out an internal exercise and communicated the plan to top levels in the government.
According to the plan, each non-AC train will carry 1,000 people per trip — about half the usual number — to ensure adequate social distancing.
“Each bus typically carries 25 people after following social distancing. The Railways’ detailed protocol also had a paragraph stating that states falling in the routes should allow the movement, screening, controlled embarking etc,” a senior government official said.
According to sources, by deciding on buses instead of trains, the government has strategically restricted the number of people who can be transported.
“It is just to allow an option of relief for the stranded wanting to travel to their home states, and not a really viable transportation solution over long distances,” an official said.
Sources said this could be the government’s way to gauge the situation first, before allowing trains — a demand raised by several states.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot tweeted on Wednesday: “Long awaited demand of movement of migrant workers has finally been accepted by the GoI. It is a welcome step but until GoI allows Indian railway to operate – practically it will not be possible to facilitate smooth and hassle-free transport to their home. In a couple of days, Rajasthan got registration of more than 6 lakh migrants from across the country including Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana, AP, Karnataka, Maharashtra, WB, Assam & North East etc. I strongly request that Railways must be allowed to function destination to destination.”
Additional Chief Secretary, Home, Rajeeva Swaroop said: “The Chief Minister had raised this issue earlier too and it was raised once again today. Given the large volume of people of Rajasthani origin in other states, it would not be possible to transport them by buses.”
Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren said he had told Railways Minister Piyush Goyal that the state would need special trains to bring back its students and migrant workers. “We are thankful for the MHA order and we are deliberating on our resources. However, I had said earlier that the state is not capable of bringing them back on our own. I had a word with Piyush Goyalji on this matter earlier,” he said.
The state estimates over 9 lakh people from Jharkhand, including 6.43 lakh migrant workers, are stranded in various parts of the country.
In earlier interactions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had also raised the demand for special trains.
On April 23, Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar had written to Goyal, saying 6.5 lakh migrant workers from various states were residing in camps in the state, and had sought special arrangements to transport them to their home states.
Officials from Odisha and Uttar Pradesh had also informally spoken to Railway officials on the matter. The Punjab government, too, had raised the demand.
While Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had not joined the chorus to bring back the stranded migrant workers, he tweeted in support of the move on Wednesday. “This decision is appropriate and worth welcoming. This was our request and the central government has taken a positive decision,” he said.
Fact check: Revisiting virus curve, to read lockdown effect
Welcoming the decision, senior Congress leader P Chidambaram sought “sanitised, point-to-point trains” for the purpose as, he said, buses would not be enough. He added that the Congress has been raising this demand since mid-April.
On April 14, a large crowd of migrant workers had gathered outside the Bandra railway station in Mumbai, following a rumour that train services would resume. Officials said the government probably did not want a repeat of such scenes.