Perhaps the most tragic and disheartening aspect of India’s battle against the novel Coronavirus pandemic has been the fate of migrant workers – those stranded in another state, suddenly without a job, a livelihood or even a roof above. It was clear from moment one that migrant workers had to go home. This was an economic and emotional necessity. They needed to feel secure in their native villages and with their families. Since a lockdown was announced with only four hours’ notice, this was not done. And a summer’s sordid tragedy began to play itself out. It was so avoidable. MPs were given 48 hours to fly home from Delhi – but guest workers, at the bottom of the pyramid, were given only four hours!
Consider an alternative scenario. Indian Railways has the capacity to carry 23 million passengers a day. About half its passengers undertake suburban travel in cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. Long-distance passenger traffic, therefore, carries approximately 12 million passengers a day.
When the lockdown was imposed, all passenger trains were shut down. So this entire 12 million passenger capacity was available. Imposing norms of social distancing and halving capacity, Indian Railways could still have moved six million passengers per day – from one state to another, from distant cities to near the workers’ villages.
By this calculation, 30 million passengers could have been transported in five days after the lockdown. If one presumes that there would have been heavy traffic on some rail tracks and routes travelling east – where most of the migrant workers would have headed – this five-day window could have been extended to a week. That’s all we needed.
In this period, the Ministry of Railways chased mirages. It set aside 5,000 non-airconditioned coaches for isolation beds for coronavirus patients. Where are these coaches and how many, if any, have been used? And how would patients have survived in non-airconditioned coaches in the first place? Was anything thought through beyond aiming for headlines?
On May 1, amid much fanfare and publicity, the special trains for migrants finally started. To add to the callousness, passengers, out of work for weeks, were asked to pay for tickets. The central government claimed the migrant workers were not paying, it produced some bogus and technical calculations to show that it is paying 85 per cent of the cost.
Two or three digital platforms have been tracking migrant workers and their stories on the ground for several weeks. Most migrant workers they have spoken to have bought their train tickets and some have even taken loans to do so. Since the fares were benchmarked against premium trains like Shatabdi and Rajdhani, migrant workers paid between Rs 700 and 900 for a ticket. Plus there was the cost of taking buses to and from stations.
While the centre has ignored its responsibility, states have shouldered the burden. Bengal, for instance, has paid for the transportation of all migrant workers it has welcomed home.
While the central government actually runs the trains, the background work is done by state governments. States have to screen passengers when they come in. They have to monitor migrant workers during home or institutional quarantine. They have to ensure symptomatic passengers are sent to hospitals and treated. It is therefore absolutely essential to reach perfect coordination between the state of departure, the state of arrival and Indian Railways. Trains should run only when the states are ready.
Here, too, the Ministry of Railways has tried to undermine federalism and suit its convenience. It has rammed through schedules. Maharashtra was keen to send migrant workers home and Bengal was happy to receive them. The two state governments were negotiating a staggered schedule to ensure all safety protocols were maintained. In the middle of this, Indian Railways announced a schedule of 37 Maharashtra-Bengal trains, one after the other, rapid fire. The state governments were not even notified and there was an attempt to create a misunderstanding between Mumbai and Kolkata.
Other pinpricks emerged. The Aarogya Setu app is not mandatory for migrant workers, and the Ministry of Home Affairs has not asked Indian Railways to force migrant workers to download it. But confusion reigned. Railway zonal offices were told verbally, not in writing, to get passengers to download the app before boarding trains. This was done just hours prior to departure. Unthinking policy making put already harassed migrant workers through hell.
The upshot of this is states such as Bengal, which have managed the pandemic fairly smoothly, are being penalised. Today, Bengal is conducting an average of 9,000 tests daily, with a manageable confirmation rate of 2.5 per cent. If migrant workers had been allowed to come back at an earlier stage, when fear of infection was lower, or been sent gradually, it would have been fine. But Indian Railways is forcing a surge of arrivals. And things are becoming unpredictable.
Mo-Sha and their rail minister have a lot to answer for. Let parliament reconvene.
[This article appeared on NDTV.com | Monday, June 1, 2020]