Kerala govt leaves Malayalis stranded in Delhi, refuses to arrange Shramik Trains

More than 7,000 Malayalis, including about 1,000 students, are stranded in many north Indian states without any way to go back home. Of these, 4,000 are from Delhi and at least 60 are pregnant women

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

Ashlin Mathew

More than 7,000 Malayalis, including at least 1,000 students, are stranded in several north Indian states without any way to go back home. Several of them have decided to walk to Kerala if there are no trains. Of these more than 4,000 are from Delhi and at least 60 are pregnant women. Strange as it may seem, the Left Democratic Front-led government in Kerala has washed their hands off arranging Shramik trains to take them home.

The Ministry of Home Affairs on May 1, 40 days after lockdown began on March 24, had issued an order that the Indian Railways would ferry migrant workers, pilgrims, students, and other people stranded in different states through ‘Shramik Special’ trains. These would be point-to-point trains and would not stop to pick passengers from stations along the way.

There are students and families stuck in Delhi, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. There are at least 300 students in Delhi and another 300 in Punjab. All of them have registered with Non-Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA) Roots and their respective governments to go back to Kerala.

The situation of those stuck in Delhi has been particularly distressing. All those who were stranded in Delhi registered with NORKA and the Kerala House on April 29. All those who had registered were informed that priority would be given to students, pregnant women and older persons. On May 9, all those who fell in the above three categories received a call from NORKA at Kerala House confirming their journey to Kerala on a Shramik train. They were all told that the first train would leave on May 15.

“On May 10, the Central government announced that they were opening up bookings on the IRCTC website for Rajdhani trains. So, a few Malayalis who could afford the tickets booked them. The tickets were priced between Rs 3,000 and Rs 7,000. This is unaffordable for several students and families stranded here. On a Shramik train, a person has to pay only Rs 1,500. Even that the Kerala government was not willing to foot,” said Suhara Hassan, a post-doctoral student from Thrissur studying at Jamia Millia Islamia University. JMI students are worried because they were all asked to vacate from the hostels by May 15.

This is when the situation began to get muddled. On May 11, a few students got calls from Kerala House confirming their berth on the train. They were informed that since several students had booked through IRCTC, NORKA wanted to confirm if they were going to Kerala.

“A few other students who got the call on May 11 were informed that it was highly unlikely that the Shramik train would run on May 15 and were asked to book train tickets through the IRCTC portal. We found out about this doublespeak because we all are a part of a few Whatappstudent groups,” underscored Sneha Shaji, an undergraduate student from Kollam at The Hindu College. She is also the national coordinator of the National Students Union of India (NSUI), the student wing of the Indian National Congress.

To clear the confusion, student representatives—Sneha Shaaji from Delhi University, Suhara Hassan, Sakeer Hussain and Gaffar from JMI and Ajzal Kabeer from IIM-Sirmaur in Himachal Pradesh—were called by Kerala House officials for a meeting with the Resident Commissioner Sanjay Garg on May 13.

Though it was Garg who was supposed to meet them, five others including the NORKA development officer Shajimon J and administrative officer Rahul Jaiswar met them. “They told us that trains were not being scheduled because there was a shortfall in numbers. We were told that each train had to have at least 1,200 passengers. We told them that we would find all the 1,200 passengers for the first train. Then they said that they would not be able to pay the Rs 15 lakh deposit. This surprised us,” pointed out Suhara.

“When we asked the authorities why the Kerala government could not pay the deposit amount, they gave us lame reasons. They told us that there were several Malayalis stranded all over the country and abroad. We were informed that if the Kerala government paid for the Shramik trains, it would create a controversy. They were going to take the money for the tickets from us anyway. Does the government not have Rs 15 lakh to pay as caution deposit?” questioned Sneha.

The students then informed the Kerala House authorities at the meeting that they would arrange for the Rs 15 lakh as both the Kerala Muslim Cultural Committee and the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee has committed to paying the ticket fare for the students. In the letter to Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan on May 10, DPCC president Anil Kumar had stated that the organisation would fund the travel expenses of all those who cannot afford to pay for their journey to Kerala.

“When they realised, we would go to these organisations for the deposit amount, they insisted that we could not take any money from political organisations. We were told that if we took from these organisations, they would use it for their political games. Neither does the government want to get us back to Kerala, nor do they want to allow anyone to help us get back home,” underscored Sneha. In two hours after the meeting on May 13, the students submitted the list of all those who were waiting to go home.

On May 13 night, Kerala CM announced that all Malayalis who were stranded in various states would have to book through the Railway portal IRCTC to travel home. After this announcement, when the students met NORKA officers on May 14, they were informed that everyone would have to book through the IRCTC portal. Since then NORKA has been incommunicado.

“If we do not hear from the Kerala government or Kerala House by Saturday evening, we will start walking. Our hostels asked us to leave by May 15. Where will all of us go? It is more than 3,000 kms, but what choice do we have,” asked a JMI student, who did not want to be identified.

Also, A Sampath, the special representative of the Kerala government for Malayalis in Delhi and former CPI(M) MP, left for home just before the lockdown. National Herald called him several times, but all of them went unanswered.

When National Herald called Kerala House, the control room officer Shivprasad said that they had no information about the Kerala government organising Shramik trains.

The phones of NORKA officer Shajimon J and administrative officer Rahul Jaiswar are switched off. Kerala House said the Resident Commissioner Sanjay Garg was unavailable. Calls to his mobile phone went unanswered.

Responses of Punjab and Rajasthan governments

The Punjab and Rajasthan governments have been responsive towards the pleas of the stranded Malayalis. The Punjab government had written thrice to the Kerala government requesting permission to run the trains from Punjab to Cochin via Bangalore in Karnataka. The first letter was sent on May 5, then subsequently on May 7 and the last letter on May 10. Till May 13, the Kerala government did not respond, but the Karnataka government did.

In the letters to Kerala principal secretary Bishwanath Sinha, the Punjab principal secretary R Venkat Ratnam said that there were 1,005 persons from Kerala and 309 from Karnataka who had registered on the Punjab government portal to go back to both these states. The Punjab government had hoped that they could arrange for the train on May 12, so that it would reach Cochin by May 14.

They had also requested both the south Indian states to make arrangements to send the 1,479 Punjabis stranded in Karnataka and 188 in Kerala back on the same train. But, for more than a week, the Kerala government remained silent. They did not even acknowledge the receipt of the letter. This was when the Punjab government had agreed to pay the Rs 15 lakh deposit that the Ministry of Railways has demanded to run a Shramik Train.

Eventually when the news reached the media on May 14 and the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was questioned on this matter, Sinha responded to the Punjab government. In a communication titled ‘most urgent’, he wrote that the Kerala government ‘accords its consent for operating the special train as requested by you’. The principal secretary also requested the finalised schedule and details of all those on the train.

“We have been waiting here since the lockdown began. We have no information yet of when the train will be arranged because the Kerala government responded after the scheduled date of the train. We contacted the NORKA nodal person for Punjab and he said he had no information. Every day the Kerala government is saying they will give us some information, but we have got nothing so far,” said Aromal U, who is pursuing engineering at Chandigarh University.

Abi KS, who is studying M.Sc Forensics at Chandigarh University, said there are eight students stranded, of which three are women. “They have been staying at a relative’s place in Mohali. The Kerala government said all non-resident Keralites should book through IRCTC website. That is impossible for several of us. Ever since they follow the dynamic pricing system, fares have skyrocketed. There are also people stuck in remote parts of Punjab without access to high-speed internet. By the time they choose their trains, the quota of those who can apply are over. How will they ever reach home,” asks Abi.

Of all the families stranded in North India, only those from Rajasthan have been able to go back. “There were about 100 of us stranded in Rajasthan, including students, nurses, doctors and families. The Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan, at the behest of Rahul Gandhi, arranged and paid for these buses.

The first bus left on May 7, then two buses left on May 12. I got one of the buses, which left on May 12. We crossed the Kerala border on May 14, and I reached Kollam on May 15 morning. We didn’t even have to pay for food,” said Ansu Thomas, who is pursuing her under-graduation in B.Sc Agriculture at Jaipur

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