In the week since the Maharashtra government announced a compulsory Covid-19 RT-PCR test for passengers travelling from Delhi, Rajasthan, Goa and Gujarat, only 1,565 domestic passengers arriving at the airport have been tested.
The new rule came into effect on November 25, but the scant personnel at the airport are unable to ensure that all those arriving without a negative RT-PCR test report from their departure point are tested.
Daily, thousands of passengers who are not carrying a negative RT-PCR report are slipping away without being tested at the airport. Against 250-260 daily tests at the airport, the railways are testing 2,000-2,500 incoming passengers from these four states, but the number of passengers arriving by train is far higher.
The Maharashtra government rules entail that passengers arriving from the four states at the airport need to carry a negative report of an RT-PCR test done 72 hours before arrival, and at railway stations, a test 96 hours before arrival at station is required. Those not carrying this report have to be tested at the station or airport before they can be allowed to go home.
While the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is responsible for screening passengers at railway stations, at the airport, according to BMC officials, it is the Mumbai International Airport Limited that must screen and test passengers. MIAL has, however, requested the BMC to depute civic officers since it is unable to manage the incoming passenger load with its existing staff.
Abhinav Mishra, who took a flight from Amritsar to Delhi and then to Mumbai on November 27, said he was not stopped at any point and asked to produce the RT-PCR report. Nor had he undergone any test before arrival.
On November 29, another passenger who landed from Goa by an afternoon flight said several passengers managed to leave without being directed to testing kiosks. As per protocol, when a flight lands, passengers with RT-PCR negative reports are allowed to alight first. The remaining passengers, except for those with a connecting flight to another city, are directed towards testing kiosks from a screening point near the aerobridge.
On the ground, however, there are very few officials to handle the huge crowd descending from each flight. Several are not being asked for their RT-PCR reports. The testing kiosks have been stationed near baggage collection belts, making it easy for those unwilling to undergo the test to collect their bags and leave without being stopped.
When a flight lands, passengers are unwilling to wait for long duration in queues. The existing manpower at the airport is inadequate to quickly screen every passenger’s RT-PCR report.
A MIAL spokesperson said the task of screening passengers for their RT-PCR reports and directing them towards testing booths is the BMC’s. “We only organise testing facility. We have a capacity to test 3,000-5,000 passengers in a day which can be scaled up to 10,000 if required,” the spokesperson said.
The BMC, however, maintained they have asked the airport authority to screen all domestic passengers and take local police’s aid if passengers refuse to co-operate. “The BMC doesn’t conduct RT-PCR tests for domestic passengers. It has to be done by the airport operator. For international passengers, a BMC team monitors and conducts tests and ensures that all are tested (for Covid-19),” said additional municipal commissioner P Velrasu.
Velrasu added, “People travelling in big groups are refusing to get tested. In such a scenario, we have asked the airport authority to take help of local police.”
In a letter dated November 23, the BMC had written to Airports Authority of India and CEO Mumbai International Airport that “only after taking the test, the passengers will be allowed to go home by the Airport Operator.” The letter stated that the responsibility of arranging testing centres falls on the airport and passengers can be charged directly for the test.
Velrasu said half of the passengers landing at Mumbai airport are from Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Goa. Civic officials said Delhi remains a point of concern with high number of cases diagnosed every day, and a huge population from Mumbai has started visiting Goa for tourism purposes making it another point for easy transmission of coronavirus. Gujarat and Rajasthan witness daily movement of people to and from Maharashtra. “When the number of passengers is huge, they might run into some operational issues — like lack of staff to keep a tight track of passengers. We will again speak to them (airport) that they carry out testing properly,” Velrasu said.
Meanwhile, the testing kiosks at the six railway stations (CSMT, Mumbai Central, Dadar, Bandra Terminus, LTT and Borivali) in the city have been streamlined after confusion and chaos in the first couple of days of the new rules coming into force. An additional support staff of five-six security guards at stations monitor passengers coming from the four states, maintaining queues and guiding them for testing.
On average, every day, 10,000 passengers alight at the six railway stations from Delhi, Goa, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and 2,000-2,500 are tested. However, the number of passengers testing positive for Covid-19 has remained low. Between November 25 and November 29, only 20 passengers have tested positive for Covid-19. “Not everyone alighting at the stations without negative RT-PCR report is tested. Our teams check the temperature before advising for antigen test, but there might be many who may be undetected as they don’t have symptoms,” said a health staff at Dadar kiosk.
Testing at railway stations has also been quicker because only symptomatic passengers are directed towards testing booths unlike at the airport where each passenger is supposed to undergo a test.
A Central Railway official said currently there are no CR trains from Delhi and Rajasthan. “Punjab Mail from Delhi will start this week. Since the trains from Goa are few on the central line we are not experiencing crowding at stations,” the CR spokesperson said.
A spokesperson from Western Railway said they only faced issue of crowding in the first two days at Bandra terminus.
“Since RT-PCR tests are not carried at the railway stations anymore and only antigen is used, the process of screening has become faster,” the WR spokesperson said.
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