Much to their credit, undervalued Railway men and women have kept the supply of foodchain uninterrupted and ferried thousands of migrant workers home, but can opposition parties stop derailing the Centre’s efforts
How does it feel listening to India’s opposition parties, especially in the aftermath of the unprecedented Corovirus pandemic in the country? A virtual ‘cacaphony’?
That word best describes the situation post-COVID-19, – an amalgamation of diverse noises aimed at tarnishing the image of the country and the government of the day - and doing all that with blatant hypocracy. This is traits of the great players of the great Indian democracy wearing the mask of Sickularism that came into focus when the Indian Railways plunged into action to transport migrant workers back home from various states.
Sonia Gandhi, who wastes no time to make some brownie points, tried to reap political dividends – a typical good old Congress style of politics. She said government was doing injustice by charging rail fare from the migrant workers and that her Congress party would fit the bill. She was clearly on the well known publicity stunt, least recalling her party’s approach towards the poor and the general issue of corruption and ‘fund raising’ for the party at the drop of a hat!
Sonia Stands Exposed
The All India Railwaymen's Federation (AIRF) on May 7 appealed to the Congress president to refrain from indulging in "petty politics". "I request not to destabilise a good system which is enabling migrants to return home in 115 special trains because of petty momentary political gains," AIRF general secretary Shiv Gopal Mishra said in the letter to her.
Earlier, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar himself had exposed the basic fault line in the Congress campaign when he clarified unambiguously that no fare will be charged from students returning to his state by special trains and that migrant workers will be reimbursed the expenses they incur. In a video message, Kumar said these measures were already in place and blamed the Opposition for the confusion.
His referred to the government’s decision that the Railways would bear 85% of the ticket cost and the remaining 15% would be borne by the respective states.
Sonia Gandhi, who wastes no time to make some brownie points, tried to reap political dividends – a typical good old Congress style of politics. She said government was doing injustice by charging rail fare from the migrant workers and that her Congress party would fit the bill
Lav Agarwal, joint secretary in the Health ministry, the nodal department in Government’s fight against Coronavirus, also told a press conference in Delhi that it was never the intention to charge the migrant workers for the tickets. "We have given the permission to run special trains on states' request. We are dividing the cost on 85-15 per cent between Railways and the States as per the norms. We never asked States to charge money from the stranded labourers," he clarified.
The Railway fare issue is not the only aspect where the Opposition parties have failed to present a united face of the country during the corona crisis. Their sole motive seems to be to embarrass the government of the day and its leader – they hate Narendra Modi. Analysing the migrant workers issue during the on-going Corona crisis, one ought to look at the pattern of things and how a motivated campaign was started by the Left Liberals and the eco system of the prophets of Doom. These included parties like CPI (M), AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal and, of course, the Congress and a select brand of media. In the words of a key BJP leader, and not without good reason, an “orchestrated exodus” drama was worked out in Delhi in March itself during the first phase of lockdown.
“Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) falls under city government and there was no business to organise as many as 40 buses if not more for taking migrant labour force and keeping and putting them at doorsteps of Uttar Pradesh," the leader told ‘Organiser’.
He also said half the drama was started by AAP MLA Raghav Chadha, who later faced litigation for his controversial tweet. And Arvind Kejriwal was only busy shedding crocodile tears. The double standards of the eco system came to the fore more than once as the same Left Liberals always chose to look the other way when the fault line in dealing with the corona pandemic was found to be with TMC’s Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. A section of media also tried to glorify Bengal’s love for Rasogolla when Banerjee allowed sweet shops to run. The lobby politics was at work!
The Modi Factor
Nevertheless, Indian Railways emerged as the true lifeline of the country during the on-going brave battle against the virus.
Some of the credit for the efficient operation of the Railways’ should obviously go to the planners and the team led by the Prime Minister himself.
According to an official, who is in the know of things, Modi has been planning out things “few steps ahead” along with Railway Minister Piyush Goyal.
On March 22, when Janta curfew was announced, Prime Minister had directed Railway Minister to draw up mechanism under which Railways could even run speciality hospitals and isolation wards. This was on March 22. The Railwaymen and women and hundreds of senior officers pulled up sleeves and set a humungous target of converting 5,000 coaches into isolation wards. The idea was to add up to as many as 80,000 beds.
Thus, under Central Railway there were plans to convert 482 such coaches, Eastern Railway 338, Northern Railway 370, North Eastern Railway 216, Northeast Frontier Railway 315, Southern Railway 572, South Central Railway 486, South Eastern Railway 329, Western Railway 410, East Central Railway 268, East Coast Railway 261, North Central Railway 130 and North Western Railway 266 among others.
Of course, the opposition parties have never bothered to give credit to the Railway staff for executing these contigency plans at a time when the crisis was yet to start showing its adverse footprints across the nation.
The superb planning was to enhance the possibility of access for the patients. These coaches, or mobile isolation wards, could be used to reach most parts of the country in case of a spurt in patients from any region or State. The railways have over 7,300 stations across the 700-plus districts and thus the government was preparing itself to strengthen its arsenal against the virus. Railways made all efforts to ensure uninterrupted supply chain for farm products like foodgrains.
The Doklam Mindset
The migrant workers’ issue vis-a-vis lockdown to combat corona virus can be linked to opposition parties’ ‘Doklam mindset’ of 2017. The Congress and other BJP-bashing outfits had presumed in 2017 that Doklam issue between India and China would spell doom for Modi and similarly, the same liberals and with their same mindset started working overtime over their plans.
Many local workers in Delhi also confirmed in March last week that DTC buses were used to ferry migrant workers from Bihar and eastern UP. The workers were told that UP buses were "waiting" at the border but in the absence of bus, there was large scale panicky. BJP leaders say AAP has tried to play a game eyeing UP assembly elections due in 2022. This charge has been denied by AAP but sources in Kejriwal's party announced that they would give a "sincere and serious contest" to Yogi-Modi duo in country's most populous state.
The superb planning was to enhance the possibility of access for the patients. These coaches, or mobile isolation wards, could be used to reach most parts of the country in case of a spurt in patients from any region or State
Of course, understanding the gravity of the situation, the Yogi government later arranged nearly 1000 buses to transport those people stranded at the Delhi-UP border to take them to Lucknow and their native places in Gorakhpur and adjoining places.
Meanwhile, Union Home ministry sources revealed that two IAS officers working under Delhi government - Rajeev Verma, a 1992 batch IAS officer who was Principal Secretary, Finance, and Renu Sharma, who was Additional Chief Secretary (Transport) were suspended. The AAP regime too has come under attack for failing to reach out to factory owners, senior executives and labour unions in Delhi during the first lockdown that was announced on March 24 by PM Modi.
Some workers told journalists that in the absence of any effort to reach out to factory owners by the City government, some owners in units in Old Delhi and South Delhi told them to "leave".
"The appeal by Prime Minister that workers should be paid despite lockdown till mid-April and also in future if there is extension of the self imposed curfew had unnerved money minded industrial unit owners in Delhi,” one labourer from UP said.
“Thus, there was a conspiracy," he had said adding as a result "we were rendered homeless, jobless and also have no idea how to reach back home". Some were misled and others took to the streets. Some of the problems faced by migrants would have been avoided.
Indian Railways help ‘Ghar Wapsi’ of Migrants
The central government approved non-stop trains from the states of Telangana, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Punjab to the eastern states following appeals from state governments to ferry migrants back to their villages. An estimated 30 percent of Indians, or about 40 crore, are internal migrants in India. In most states, there is hardly any data and thus there is no established system to ensure their welfare.
Nevertheless, informal workers are the backbone of the urban economy and lakhs survive by cooking food, serving in restaurants, working as house maids, toiling in the construction sector, plumbing toilets, and delivering newspapers and groceries.
"On the occasion of Labour Day on May 1, the Ministry of Home Affairs has decided to run Shramik trains to transport migrant workers, tourists and students stranded across the country," said Minister of State for Home G Kishan Reddy.
Finally, the special trains were run and by May 6, Railway authorities said it would have run a total of 115 Shramik trains to ferry migrants to their home states.
According to an estimate in first four days since May 1, over 67,000 migrant workers have been taken back home. ‘Thank You’ is a powerful phrase but often it is not enough to express gratitude to millions of corona warriors but when it comes to Rail men and women – it is never too late to bow down and offer them a gently squeezed hand clasp.
(The writer is a Delhi based freelancer)