On 7th May, the Indian government started the Vande Bharat Mission, in which the Indian government is bringing Indian nationals home from other countries. So far, the government has brought back 15,000 stranded Indians from 12 countries.
Pretty Amazing… Right? You must be feeling very proud to be an Indian…like after watching the Akshay Kumar movie `Airlift´. The 56-inch Indian chest is swelling with pride.
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The next day on 8th May, 16 migrant workers were run over by a goods train early morning in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra. The migrant workers were walking to board a “Shramik Special” train to return to Madhya Pradesh. According to the police, the migrant workers must have fallen asleep on the tracks due to exhaustion. Imagine, what would have made these workers sleep on the railway tracks.
PM Modi has done his customary grieved tweet.
Extremely anguished by the loss of lives due to the rail accident in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. Have spoken to Railway Minister Shri Piyush Goyal and he is closely monitoring the situation. All possible assistance required is being provided.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 8, 2020
Migrant workers have been trying to reach home since the beginning of the lockdown. We have seen and heard several stories of people gathered to bus stops only to be beaten and sent back. Many started walking from Delhi to parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the early parts of the lockdown. Many found escape in trucks and even cement mixers, all the while disappointed and hopeless about any help coming from the government.
PM Modi and his pronouncements since the lockdown and his call for duty have been getting him brownie points while putting the burden of managing pandemic on the state governments.
After the lockdown 3.0 announcement, the central government announced that migrants will be sent home by special trains. It should be noted that the central government did not make any announcement on who will bear the cost of travel for millions of migrants and how such an exercise will be done during the pandemic.
State governments, many of them unwilling as well as unprepared to send and receive the migrant workers, also acted in a predictable manner of disinterest and apathy.
As expected it caused chaos and confusion at the train stations in many states, again putting the burden as well as the blame of any mishap on the states.
The curious case of Karnataka
The Karnataka government has presented a special case in withholding its migrant workers. Firstly by overcharging even the migrant workers within the state for which it got a lot of criticism as well. Then it delayed the arrangement of trains until 4th May, which was also discontinued the next day by the CM Yeddyurappa apparently due to pressure from the builder lobby. Again due to criticism, it restarted the train service.
The Karnataka government has also launched a Migrant registration form called the “Seva Sindhu” app for Interstate travel, which has to be filled online by each migrant willing to leave the state. Most of these migrants are not educated and will need help in registering for the app. that gives them information about trains and dates of travel.
In the government machinery also there is lack of coordination between administration and Police. The labour department, transport department and police should be better coordinated to solve the crisis.
Amid the announcements and denouncements by several state governments about starting and stopping trains, several of them have started to walk home even to far off north Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar.
The receiving states
Most of the migrants are from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal. These states also have not been very proactive in bringing their natives back home.
These states are also among the poorest and backward states in the country, the reason for migration in the first place.
The Karnataka government is accusing that it is now ready to send the migrant workers home but it has not gotten a nod from the receiving states.
Today morning Home Minister Amit Shah and West Bengal Chief Minister indulged in a round of sparring when Amit Shah accused the Bengal government of not allowing “Shramik (worker)” trains to reach Bengal and warned that non-cooperation would create hardship for the state’s migrants. To which Trinamool Congress responded that they have planned to run eight trains to ferry migrants from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, and Telangana over the next three days. The tug of war further intensified when railway officials responded soon after that there was no proposal on record from the West Bengal government to run anymore ‘Shramik Special’ trains to ferry migrant workers to the state.
Karnataka government has also accused Bihar government over denial of permission to the Karnataka government to run special trains to Bihar. The Karnataka government wants to run two trains every day to Bihar. Bihar’s deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi reacting strongly to the accusation said- “This is absolutely wrong. Nobody has stopped people from coming from Karnataka. In fact, two trains, one on May 3 and another on May 6, have already arrived here. The state government has also given consent to run eight more trains. 15-18 trains are reaching Bihar every day from different destinations.
The Orissa government yesterday cancelled the permission of three trains coming from Surat carrying migrant workers citing a Orissa high court order that states only COVID19 negative migrants will be allowed. This led to hundreds of migrant workers from Odisha coming to the streets defying lockdown in Surat yesterday.
Jharkhand has been receiving trains from Telangana and Kerala since 1st May, but the coordination between Jharkhand and Karnataka government seems to be missing.
Many of these state governments do not even have an estimate of the number of migrant workers outside and are already overwhelmed by the ones who have arrived. Orissa, for example, had an estimate of around five lakh migrants across the country, while the real estimate is around 20 lakhs.
Bihar has allowed only a few trains in a week and is already overwhelmed by the pouring migrant workers for whom there is neither adequate quarantine facilities or employment later on.
Governments that mostly act out of their vote bank compulsions do not have any interest in the life and rights of the workers that make buildings, malls, and roads for their cities since the migrant workers are not their vote bank.
We should ask how the government that can coordinate with foreign countries, international airlines suddenly become so helpless and confused when it comes to performing on domestic grounds?