As a political storm raged on Monday over stranded migrant workers being made to pay for their journey home, the Central government stood firm on the fare policy for its Shramik Special trains, and said it was bearing the bulk of the cost.
Sources in the Railways said that there was no move to revise the guidelines or Standard Operating Procedure issued on Saturday vis-à-vis fares, and that the Railways would continue to charge states, at whose request these trains were being run, for tickets.
Fifty-eight Shramik Special trains have been run so far, including 13 on Monday from cities like Bengaluru, Surat, Sabarmati, Akola, and Kota.
In the face of criticism, the government said that through the fares, it was asking states to pay only 15 per cent of the overall cost incurred by the Railways to run these trains.
“Government of India or Railways never said anything about charging the migrants. We said we will bear 85 per cent of the cost and states will bear 15 per cent, and the process was set in place based on the states’ request to send limited migrant labourers for some very particular reasons, back to their states. All states are coordinating this process accordingly, except one or two,” Lav Agarwal, joint secretary in the Ministry of Health, told reporters at the official briefing on COVID-19 measures.
Sources said the calculation offered by the Railways was based on the fact that the trains were running at only two-thirds capacity, and returning empty to their bases after each run. Each rake is being sanitised upon return.
Also, passengers were being provided food and water for free every 12 hours during the journey. Each train was being escorted by the Railway Protection Force (RPF), which was adding to the cost, officials said.
The non-AC Sleeper Class fare for all passengers adds up to only 15 per cent of the running cost of the train, which the Railways is seeking from the states, these officials said.
Early in the day, Congress president Sonia Gandhi announced that state units of her party would pay for the migrants’ fare. The government had denied workers and migrant labourers the opportunity to return to their homes by announcing the lockdown without notice, she said, and had then forced them to walk several hundred kilometres without food, medicines, or money.
“What is the responsibility of our government? Even today, lakhs of workers and migrant labourers are languishing in different parts of the country and wish to return to their homes and families but there is neither adequate money nor provision for free transport.
“What is particularly disturbing is that the central government and the Rail Ministry are charging them for train tickets in this hour of crisis,” she said.
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Earlier, RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav announced on social media that his party would pay for 50 such trains to get Bihari migrant workers home.
Officials said that in the normal course, the Railways earns 44 paise per passenger kilometre (pkm) on average while incurring a cost of 90 paise per pkm. The earning in the non-AC Sleeper Class is about 45 paise/pkm, while in the General (unreserved) class it is 31 paise/pkm.
Freight earnings subsidise passenger operations. On every ticket that it issues, the Railways declares that it recovers only 57 per cent of the cost of travel on average from fares.
While the total fare amount payable by states for each Shramik Special train is different based on distance and occupancy, a senior Railway Ministry official told The Indian Express that the receivables from the first 34 Shramik Special trains had been calculated to be around Rs 3.5 crore.
To illustrate, officials said that a Shramik Special that left Surat for the industrial town of Barauni in Bihar on Monday was likely to generate a little under Rs 10 lakh in fares at the rate of Rs 710 per passenger.
A Railway Ministry spokesperson told The Indian Express: “We are not charging passengers. We are charging state governments. Officials said the guidelines only specify that states would “collect the total fare and hand over the total amount to Railways”; it was up to the states to raise the money.
Railway sources said more “destination states” such as Bihar and Chhattisgarh had expressed willingness to pay for the tickets, and talks were on with others.
The senior Railway official said that the Shramik Specials were running “at Rajdhani (Express) speeds”, covering distances such as the nearly 3,000 km from Kozhikode to Katihar, in much less time than usual.
“The Shramik Special from Surat to Berhampur in Odisha, which is some 1,800 km, reached in 24 hours. Normally trains of this category take 40 hours to cover this distance. And we are bringing back empty rakes. What the Railways is recovering is nowhere close to its cost,” the official said.
This official added that when the Railways gives its rakes to states or others in the normal course, it charges 40 per cent over and above the full tariff rate, plus detention charges and empty return charges.
BJP Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy was the first to mention the “85-15” figure on Monday morning before BJP functionaries too started tweeting about it.
“Talked to (Railway Minister) Piyush Goyal office. Government will pay 85 per cent and state government will pay 15 per cent. Migrant labour will go free. Ministry will clarify with an official statement,” Swamy posted on Twitter soon after slamming the government in a tweet for “charging… half starved migrant labourers”.
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