Shramik special trains face heat over on-board deaths, food, water issues

A labourer drinks water at a grain market on a hot summer day as temperature reached 48 degrees Celsius, in Bikaner
Shramik Special trains were meant to be a gift to labourers from the Narendra Modi government on May Day. However, after nine deaths were reported onboard the trains in the past few days, doubts are being raised not only on the efficiency of railways but also on whether the trains have addressed the crisis that has unfolded during the lockdown.

Supreme Court weighed in on the matter on Thursday, after there was a national outrage. It passed interim directions saying no fare for travel either by train or bus should be charged from migrant workers, and said food and water should be provided to passengers by the Indian Railways. The Bench, headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan, directed states to provide free transport to stations and food at the time of boarding. It added that food and water be also provided for travel in buses.

Videos showing travellers complaining about lack of food and water and people looting platform stalls have gone viral on social media. Experts said the Railways, which used to operate over 12,000 passenger trains a day, is struggling to run 250 Shramik Specials a day.    As many as nine people have been found dead since Monday on different trains heading to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The video of a dead woman and her toddler trying to wake her up invited sharp reactions. The Railways had attributed the deaths to pre-existing health conditions and old-age.

Chandan Kumar from labour rights organisation Working People’s Charter, however, alleged, “It is pure mismanagement on the part of Indian Railways. Trains destined for Uttar Pradesh are reaching Odisha. In the span of two months, it appears the Railways has become defunct as migrants were not being provided water and food.”

The Railways said Thursday evening that states would have to pay for the food it supplies, in addition to ticket fare.

Controversies around these trains started right at the launch on May 1. Initially, most passengers had to pay for their tickets. When the Congress party said it would bear the cost, the government was forced to change its stand on May 4.
A boy waits with his migrant family inside a school at Aram Bagh area before boarding a bus to their native place in UP, during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown, in New Delhi
The Centre is bearing 85 per cent of the cost since then with states paying the remaining 15 per cent. “Planning is missing. Coming out with figures of number of trains every day, they are treating this as a charity mission. It is the duty of the government to transport migrants, who are the backbone of the country’s economy and industry,” said Anjali Borhade, director of Disha, a non-governmental organisation.

Railway Minister Piyush Goyal has been engaged in a war of words over these trains with states. To start with, when the minister alleged that West Bengal was not keen on bringing back migrants. This was followed by a twitter fight between Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Goyal over the availability of trains. Thackeray said the state was not even getting half the trains it demanded.

Goyal flagged the issue of return journey and how trains could not run empty. “We had faced issues regarding the availability of trains. Now, the Centre and the state are closely working to sort out the issues,” said a state government official.

The trouble for Shramik trains is that they were launched as super-fast trains but started getting delayed. One train headed for Uttar Pradesh, landed up in Odisha. “Because of congestion on the routes towards Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, we had diverted trains on May 23 and 24. That was only for two days because 80 per cent of the trains were headed towards these two states,” said a senior railways official. Because of these delays, videos of people looting railway station stalls started coming out from several parts.

Though the Railways is not coming out with official figures on the number of deaths, a heatwave in north and central India added to the travails of these non-AC passengers. “Diversion is a standard protocol. If it is a point-to-point train like Shramik special, the Railways charge for the shortest route but take the fastest route. Hence there is nothing abnormal in the diversion and delay,” said Vijay Dutt, former additional member of the Railways.

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