Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sought Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intervention on Wednesday in the alleged “whimsical” functioning of the railways in sending Shramik Special trains to West Bengal and urged the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre not to pursue politics when the state is battling a dual crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic and trail of destruction left behind by Cyclone Amphan.
The state’s infrastructure is “stretched to its limit” after the May 20 cyclone and it can receive very few trains carrying migrant workers back on a daily basis as of now, she said.
The state considers the ferrying of a large number of migrant workers by the railways as a big problem for public health. The pressure should be “optimal and well managed”, Banerjee said.
“The state government is facing a dual crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastation caused by Cyclone Amphan. Our infrastructure is completely stretched. The railways is sending Shramik Special trains to the state every day according to its whims and fancies, without even bothering to inform us,” she said.
“Where will we keep these migrant labourers for institutional quarantine? This is not the time for politics. We are facing a very tough situation and we need time and space to tackle it,” the chief minister said, ahead of the slated arrival of 11 Shramik Special trains in the state in the evening.
Banerjee, one of the most vocal critics of the BJP, hit out at the saffron party, saying, “They can disturb me politically, but why are they causing harm to the state? West Bengal is facing such a major disaster. It will lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases. Who will take the responsibility then?”
“I request the prime minister and Union home minister to look into the matter so that there is no spike in COVID-19 cases in the state. The prime minister should intervene,” the feisty Trinamool Congress supremo said.
The TMC government had asked the railway ministry not to send Shramik Special trains to the state till May 26 in view of the devastation caused by Cyclone Amphan. However, a total of 41 such trains are scheduled to arrive in the city this week.
The railways, however, said no trains were being “planned” by the national transporter and it was only operationalising the trains that have been asked for by the states.
“The railways was given a demand with details such as the number of passengers, originating and destination points. All the related coordination is being done by the state governments. The railways is a medium providing service by arranging rakes based on the request from these states,” it said.
Around 41 trains were to leave for West Bengal on May 26, but by midnight, only 10 had departed, the railways said.
So far, 35 trains have terminated in Bengal, 22 are in transit and three more are in the pipeline, according to data provided by the national transporter.
“It is because of the sudden announcement of the lockdown that we are facing this migrant labourer crisis. I had earlier told Union Home Minister Amit Shah that if his government feels that we cannot handle the COVID-19 crisis, why don’t they (Centre) handle it on its own?” Banerjee said.
Asserting that the coronavirus cases were brought under control in the state, the chief minister said there was a recent spike after 25 per cent of the migrant labourers, who returned from other states, tested positive for the disease.
Most of these cases were returnees from the hotspot areas in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, she said.
“We had come up with a plan, according to which everyone would have come back in a few days in a phased manner. But we got to know only on Tuesday that many trains are coming from Maharashtra. I
myself spoke to the Maharashtra government and they said they were informed of it at 2’o clock the night before. Had the Centre drawn up a plan with us, the railway ministry consulted us, it would have been better,” Banerjee said.
Elaborating on her government’s stretched infrastructure, she said it is not possible for it to institutionally quarantine all those returning to the state.
“So we have asked the district magistrates concerned to create a block-wise task force for every district to ensure that those returning from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra can be institutionally quarantined in local schools.
“The self-help groups will arrange for food for those at the quarantine centres. After 14 days, they will be tested and those who test negative will be sent home. Those from other states, who are asymptomatic, can go home but must stay in home quarantine for 14 days,” Banerjee said.
West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh termed Banerjee’s allegation against the Centre as “baseless”.
“All the states have accepted hundreds of trains carrying home their migrant labourers. The West Bengal government is the only exception. It did not create facilities and infrastructure for quarantine for the last two months,” he said.
The West Bengal government had last week announced that it would receive 225 Shramik Special trains carrying migrant labourers who were stranded in other states.
The issue of migrant labourers snowballed into a major political crisis between the Centre and West Bengal recently, with the former accusing the TMC government of not doing enough to take back migrant labourers from the state. The TMC has dismissed the allegation as baseless.