The Centre was on Thursday urged by Bihar, Punjab and Telangana among other states to run non-stop special trains for the transportation of lakhs of stranded migrant workers hit by the national lockdown, a day after it allowed their inter-state movement by buses.
As the Centre's decision ahead of the end of the 40-day lockdown brought cheers to lakhs of migrant workers across the country, quarantine centres and shelter homes were also being readied for the returning migrants with Uttar Pradesh alone preparing to receive an estimated 10 lakh people.
The coronavirus-induced lockdown is due to end on May 3.
Asked at a press briefing in New Delhi if special trains and private vehicles will also be allowed to transport these people as demanded by some states and others, Punya Salila Srivastava, a joint secretary in the ministry of home affairs (MHA), said the orders issued at present were for 'using buses and for group of persons'.
"State governments will also register such people and concerned states will discuss among themselves for ensuring these movements by road," she said, adding all states and union territories (UTs) will have to 'strictly follow' MHA's latest guidelines.
The MHA on Wednesday issued fresh directives allowing states to transport stranded students, migrant labourers, tourists and pilgrims to their home states or destination by strictly following guidelines meant to contain the spread of the coronavirus in the country.
State governments also appointed nodal officers from the civil and police administration to develop standard protocols to help coordinate the movement of the stranded people. Contact details of the officers were also given.
The Kerala government renewed its demand for special non-stop trains to transport those who are keen to leave for their respective states, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said, adding the chief secretary has written a letter to the union home secretary.
"There are so many people who wish to leave for their respective states. The distance they have to traverse from the southern state was very long, it would be a tiresome journey to transport them by bus and there was a possiblity of the virus spreading," Vijayan told reporters in Thiruvananthapuram.
There are 3.60 lakh workers in 20,826 camps in Kerala and 99 per cent of them, hailing from West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, want to return to their respective states, Vijayan noted.
In Ahmedabad, some stranded migrants said they have already started packing their bags to return home.
"Life became very difficult for me and my family after the lockdown as I was left with no money," said Shyam Singh, a native of Morena in Madhya Pradesh, who is currently living in Ranip area of Ahmedabad.
Singh said he was glad they were now allowed to go back to their home state.
"I can at least do some farming there to help my family. I have already packed the luggage for the journey. If I find some better work in my home state, I do not wish to return here," he added.
The Bihar government urged the Centre to allow running of special trains at least from far-off places where the migrants from the state are stuck.
“We will welcome all our people willing to come back, from any part of the country. Arrangements like screening, home quarantine and institutional quarantine are in place.
"But the number of those wanting to return is likely to be huge. If we depend on buses, the process could take months to complete,” Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi said in a video message.
Non-stop trains without any intermediary halts could be operated, he said, adding seating arrangements be made for passengers in a way that social distancing is ensured.
Modi pointed out that the number of people from Bihar stranded is very large, with more than 17 lakh having received financial assistance of Rs 1,000 each from the state government and nearly 10 lakh more applications being under process.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to arrange special trains.
According to officials, there are nearly 10 lakh migrant labourers in Punjab. Approximately 70 per cent of these are from Bihar.
Telangana Animal Husbandry Minister T Srinivas Yadav also demanded that the Centre arrange special trains and provide free transportation.
Noting that there are about 15 lakh migrant workers in Telangana, who hail from states like Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, he said it takes about three to five days for them to reach their home states if they travel by buses.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot on Wednesday night said until the Centre allows the Railways to operate it will practically not be possible to facilitate 'smooth and hassle free' transport of the migrant workers to their homes.
He said in a couple of days Rajasthan got registration of more than six lakh migrants from across the country including the four southern states, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Assam.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Palaniswami said the state will wait for clear cut instructions from the Centre on the mode of transportation and the wherewithal involved in the process.
A Delhi government official said states will send buses to bring back their natives stranded in the national capital.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath asked officials to keep ready quarantine centres, shelter homes and community kitchens as the state prepares for the return of migrant workers stranded in different parts of the country.
Adityanath appealed to those stranded in other states to be patient and not start walking towards their homes.
'Maintain patience that you have shown till now. A detailed plan is being prepared after contacting states concerned to ensure that all return to their homes safely. Therefore, stay where you are and remain in contact with the respective state governments. Do not start moving on foot,' he said in a tweet.
An official spokesperson said in Lucknow that workers stranded in Madhya Pradesh will be brought back on Thursday and those in Gujarat on Friday by buses. Around 13,000 people are also being brought back from Haryana.
The chief minister asked officials to prepare quarantine centres, shelter homes and community kitchens to cater to 10 lakh people.
Though state governments are working on plans for the movement of migrant workers it was not known whether the entire affected lot would like to return to their homes since plans are also afoot to scale up industrial activities after May 3.
For example, the Karnataka government has decided to allow industrial activities across the state barring COVID-19 containment zones from May 4.
Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister J C Madhuswamy said a one-time movement of migrant workers and others will be allowed and the state government would arrange buses for those in need but they should bear the expenses.
In Gujarat, the state government stepped up its efforts to send back the migrant labourers, who are mostly from Uttar Pradesh.
Additional Chief Secretary, Labour and Employment, Vipul Mitra, said around 4,000 migrant workers kept at various shelter homes will be sent back to their home states soon.
Of them, around 2,300 are from Uttar Pradesh alone, while others are from neighbouring states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.