Railways' move to suspend services contradicts social distancing message

Topics Coronavirus | corona | Lockdown

Stranded migrant workers take rest under a flyover near Lokmanya Tilak Terminus in Mumbai, Tuesday (Photo PTI)
Last week videos showing migrant labourers crowding Anand Vihar bus terminus in Delhi or walking hundreds of kilometres to return to their villages went viral after the March 23 announcement of a nationwide 21-day lockdown. Before that on March 20, the Indian Railways issued instructions to zones that no passenger trains will originate from any railway station in the country from 7 am to 10 pm on March 22 because of the Janata Curfew that Prime Mi­nister Narendra Modi announced.

That day, Maharashtra, too, an­n­oun­ced that all non-essential services in Mumbai Metropolitan Region, Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad and Na­gpur would be closed till the end of March. This caused thousands to flock to Mu­m­bai railway stations to catch that last train home or at least closer to it.

Though the Indian Ra­il­ways is a national transpo­rter with its 67,368 kilometre of route network, it conducted no consultations with the state governments on how people would move long distances. Later the suspension of passenger train operations was ex­tended to March 31 and then till the end of national lockdown period on April 14.

The Indian Railways was not the only transporter to close passenger operations. 
International flights into India were cancelled from March 22. Ten days earlier, the Indian government had cancelled all visas except in certain categories. Airlines had curtailed foreign op­erations before that and cancelled domestic passenger operations from March 25.

Road transport, however, was the first to see curtailment of operations, but these were more local in nature, primarily to stop movement within the states. The Punjab government, for instance, halted all public transport from March 20 even before the Centre decided to stop railway and airline passenger services. India’s fourth Covid-19 casualty was from Punjab. The same day Tamil Nadu closed its border with Kerala. Karnataka, too, followed up by closing border with Kerala on March 22. Kerala was the first state to report a Covid-19 positive case in January. By the time, the number of countrywide cases reached 151, the ministry of road transport and highways on March 20 asked the states to minimise travelling by public and consider refunding fares for advance bookings.

The initial approach followed by the Indian Railways and airlines was to cancel services on those routes where the occupancy was low. For commercial airlines, it didn’t make sense to fly to, say, China, Italy and Iran, that reported initial Covid-19 casualties, because business travellers had stopped going to these countries anyway. Besides, their staff was risking exposure to the virus by travelling to those destinations.

The Railways, too, started cancelling low occupancy trains in view of the pandemic. This approach ran contrary to the messages of social distancing and avoid crowding being promoted by both the government and the health experts. It shouldn’t have followed the same approach as airlines for two reasons. One, it is the crucial lifeline for long-distance travellers, especially for those who do not have airports in their city or cannot afford flights. Second, it should have ensured that trains weren’t crowded during the peak period; instead it could run more trains just as it does for Holi and Diwali. “Running two-three trains for four-five days would have saved harassment. It was an unplanned situation,” says Shanti Narain, former member (traffic), Railway Board.

Narain says trains should have been allowed for about two to three days after the lockdown. Since railway ticketing is computerised, it is possible to know for which places there was a rush for tickets. “For instance, if there were 5,000 people who needed to go to Uttar Pradesh from New Delhi, you could have ensured that people reach their destination,” he says.

Even the normally efficient Delhi Metro Rail Corporation took decisions that dangerously contradicted the social distancing norms. On March 19, it curtailed its services even though its occupancy was already down by then since many offices in the National Capital Region had instituted work-from-home orders. This meant that even the smaller numbers of passengers were accommodated in fewer trains. Delhi Metro’s average daily ridership is over 5 million.

The Mumbai suburban services took a more cautious and gradual approach. It first shut air-conditioned services from March 20 since the Covid-19 infection is more likely to spread in closed surroundings. The total number of trains remained the same but with frequent changes in the Union government’s approach and the announcement of the national shutdown caused suburban services to be discontinued.

Commuting within the country whether inter-state or intra-state and within cities has come to a halt even for those who provide essential services. With manufacturing units shut and construction activity stopped, jobless labourers find it hard to sustain themselves in cities even as many richer Indians could afford air fares to fly back home by March 24.  
While the Delhi, Bihar and UP governments quibble over taking responsibility for the stranded migrant labourers, lack of coordination in transportation and decision-making has made a mockery of the vital need to contain the community spread of Covid-19, especially in rural areas where basic medical facilities are poor.

This crisis not just reflects poorly on India’s inter-state transport services, it also shows how a vulnerable section of society has been left out in the planning for a nationwide lockdown.

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