The Maharashtra government and the railways have squared off yet again, this time over allowing women to travel in Mumbai’s local trains.
On Friday evening, the Maharashtra government issued a directive that women would be allowed to travel in local trains starting Saturday from 11 am to 3 pm, again from 7 pm to end of services. Minutes later, the railways sent a letter to the state government that it was not possible to start such services from October 17 and it would require clearance from the Railway Board. It also suggested a joint meeting of railway and government officials to work out the modalities.
“It is requested that local train services may be made available for all women commuters from 11 am to 3 pm and again from 7 pm till the last service runs with effect from October 17, 2020, in Mumbai and MMR,” Kishor Raje Nimbalkar, Secretary, Disaster Management, Relief and Rehabilitation (Maharashtra), said in a letter written to the general managers of both Central Railway (CR) and Western Railway (WR).
The letter also requested increasing the number of services on both lines. Subsequently, WR sent a reply that it cannot allow it without the Railway Board’s permission. “The matter has been referred to the Railway Board. Once approval is received, then such permission can be communicated to you…,” WR’s letter stated.
WR also asked the government to make an assessment of how many passengers are likely to increase because of the new order. “In this connection it is suggested that a joint meeting between railway officials and the Maharashtra government should be held to work out the modalities. Further course of action will be taken accordingly,” it said.
Railway officials said that before the lockdown, 24 lakh women commuters used the suburban railway system daily.
Senior government officials said a meeting to discuss the modalities has already been held with the railways, which was attended by representatives from the government, BMC and the police. “There seems to be some confusion. We are hopeful of sorting out this issue with the railways by tomorrow morning,” Nimbalkar said.
This is not the first time that the state government and railways have squared off over train services during the pandemic. Both had differed over starting special trains to facilitate movement of people to districts in Konkan for Ganesh Chaturthi in August.
In May, a war of words had broken out between Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, railway officials and the Maharashtra government over the Shramik special trains with the railways accusing the government of not getting passengers in time at railway stations to board these trains.
Suburban train services were shut down on March 23. Partial resumption of services was announced on June 15. However, only those deemed to be essential service providers are allowed to board these trains after being allotted a special pass. Both divisions are not operating local trains to full capacity. Currently, 700 services are plying on WR against 1,316 before the lockdown. On CR, there are 481 services against 1,719 before March.
The reduced services as well as regulation on who can board the trains has caused hardship to many residents of Mumbai’s satellite cities, especially the poor. As businesses open, many of the city’s workforce, who stay in faraway locations from commercial business districts in the city, have seen their daily commute time double.
There is a fear that allowing resumption of normal services will increase the chances of the infection spreading. A Covid-19 projection model by Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) had warned that if local trains are restarted by mid-September, it may lead to a ‘difficult to manage’ second wave. The model has advised staggering office timings to avoid overcrowding in trains.
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