Sonia Gandhi’s quiet empathy shuts down Modi regime’s loud theatrics, prompts action

Almost derailed by Sonia Gandhi’s offer to pay rail fare for migrant labourers, Railway ministry says it will foot 85% of the bill. Why not 100%?


May 4 2020, will be marked as an landmark date in Indian Politics, for it has brought forth a leadership lesson, from an unexpected quarter, It took one empathetic decision from Opposition leader,  Congress president Sonia Gandhi, to send the Union government into firefighting mode. Gandhi, who has never held a cabinet post, or ministership offered to pay rail fare for migrant labourers, desperate to get home to their villages. Already hit by joblessness, and facing impending starvation in the cities they work in, thousands of labourers had hoped to get home safely in the special trains run by the Railway ministry for the purpose. To their shock they were expected to pay the full fare.

So bizzare was the move that even Subramaniam Swamy, senior lawyer and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member had commented: “How moronic of the Government of India to charge steep rail fares from the half starved migrant labourers! Indians stranded abroad were brought back free by Air India. If Railways refuse to budge then why not make PM CARES pay instead?” It is well known that Swamy is one of the most vocal critics of Sonia Gandhi, her family, and party. He then went on to add that he had spoken to the concerned ministry, who in turn said they will now pay 85% of the fare for each ticket.

The fact that it took one statement from Sonia Gandhi to rattle the Railways Ministry and the union government has exposed the manner in which such a crisis is first created, and how it harms the most marginalised sections. It is unlikely that the Rail Minister, Piyush Goel, had not known the situation before Sonia Gandhi’s orders alerted the system. 

“What is the responsibility of our Govt? Even today lakhs of workers & migrant labourers are languishing in different parts of the country. What is disturbing is that the Govt is charging them for train tickets in this crisis,” she had asked.

Sonia Gandhi had called the government out for this anti-labourer, anti-poor move,  and said it was the government’s responsibility to ensure “safe” and “free rail travel” for migrant workers who wanted to go back to their  home-towns as they had no options left. 

She questioned the Rail Ministry’s “largesse to donate ₹151cr to PM’s Corona fund,” and asked, “why can’t these essential members of our nation’s fabric be given a fraction of the same courtesy, especially free rail travel?”

Sonia Gandhi, then said her party will pay the rail fares of all the migrants who could not afford to buy their train ticket home. “The Indian National Congress has, therefore, taken a decision that every PradeshCongress Committee shall bear the cost for the rail travel of every needy worker and migrant labourer and shall take necessary steps in this regard,” she said. 

This she said was her party’s “contribution in service of our compatriots and to stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with them.” This was an offer for all states, not just the ones governed by the Congress. Her announcement must have sent alarm bells ringing in the Rail Ministry. Though a clarification came from party leader Subramanian Swamy, and not from the Rail Minister, or the Prime Minister’s office.

“Talked Piyush Goel office. Govt will pay 85% and State Govt 15% . Migrant labour will go free. Ministry will clarify with an official statement

Sonia Gandhi had reacted to the news that migrant labourers, many now jobless, had been forced to pay for their travel  charged migrant labourers who desperately need to get home to their villages. The government, it seems, reacted to Sonia Gandhi. 

It is a matter of record that since the national Covid19 lockdown, now in its third phase, labourers have faced massive job loss, and do not have food and health security at the cities they work in. Thousands have been walking to their villages from across the country. Many have died on the way. It is now being seen as one of the biggest humanitarian crises in India, emerging in the wake of the Covid19 pandemic. 

“Thousands of migrant workers and labourers were forced to walk home… without anything except for the desire to return to their families & loved ones. Their plight breaks our hearts,” said Sonia Gandhi. She called the workers the backbone of India’s economy, and said they have been denied the opportunity to return to their homes as the nation was put in lockdown suddenly. 

“Post the Partition of 1947, this is the first time India witnessed a tragedy with such a massive human cost,” she said and added that it was “particularly disturbing that the Central Government and the Rail Ministry are charging them for train tickets in this hour of crisis.”

She said that the Union Government had  “recognised its responsibility by arranging free air travel for our citi-zens stranded abroad,” and spent “nearly Rs. 100 crores for just one public programme in Gujarat”. 

As expected her statements, and offer to pay, set off a discussion online with BJP supporters in fire fighting mode and Congress spokesperson raising more questions. A case in point was BJP spokesman Sambit Swaraj who answered Rahul Gandhi’s question on railways donation to PM Cares fund with this:

“Rahul Gandhi ji,
I have attached guidelines of MHA which clearly states that “No tickets to be sold at any station” Railways has subsidised 85% & State govt to pay 15%

The State govt can pay for the tickets(Madhya Pradesh’s BJP govt is paying)
Ask Cong state govts to follow suit” 

Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera put out the original orders which showed that the state governments were to collect fares and issue tickets to the labourers who wanted to travel. “For the record, this is what the government of India had issued. No harm in accepting the mistake and undoing it. We owe it all to our workers.”



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