As shops and establishments prepared to shut down following a Maharashtra government order that all private businesses and companies must remain closed from Saturday until March 31, an exodus began in Mumbai and Pune with tens of thousands of workers in the unorganised sector, as well as auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers, thronging railway ticket counters to return to their hometowns, mostly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
In scenes that were just the opposite of the government’s advice to people to remains indoors, and will raise concerns among public health officials about efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 and cross-country transmission, people thronged inter-city stations in Pune and Mumbai, lining up at ticket counters and gathering on platforms as they waited for trains to take them home.
BMC Medical officer in Kurla, Dr Jeetendra Jadhav, said they were informed about a huge crowd at Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, Sion, on Friday evening. “The railway police should have dispersed the crowd under the Epidemic Act. It does not come under our jurisdiction. But it seems people are trying to return to their native places because they fear that trains and buses will be shut down, and they want to leave before that happens,” he said.
As per the 2011 census, Mumbai, which includes the districts of Mumbai City, Mumbai Suburban and Thane, has 46.44 lakh inter-state migrants and around 43.44 lakh intra-state migrants. Nearly 30 per cent of these migrants earn their livelihood from the informal economy.
The slowdown has hit these workers the hardest. Faced with the prospect of not being able to earn any money until the end of the month, most decided it was better to return to their homes. Thousands who rushed to ticket counters on Friday were turned away because of long waiting lists. As tickets ran out, passengers said they plan to travel without tickets or on wait-listed tickets in unreserved compartments.
Shiv Kumar Patel, who has been driving an auto-rickshaw in Mumbai since 2006, was one of the thousands who could not get a ticket. From Varanasi, Patel now plans to travel on a wait-listed ticket even if he has to pay a penalty. “I am leaving on a wait-listed ticket with a friend instead of trying to get a confirmed ticket,” he said. His daily earnings have dropped to Rs 300 a day.
For Mohammad Idris, whose taxi business has come to a near standstill, getting a ticket is proving to be a major challenge. A resident of Prayagraj, Idris says he is now looking to buy a wait-listed ticket on the Kamayani Express.
The Central Railways (CR) said it would run at least 15 special trains to the eastern and northern parts of the country to clear the rush. There are at least three special trains planned for Gorakhpur, of which two will leave from Mumbai and one from Pune. Two more trains will ply to Howrah, one each from Mumbai and Pune. Other trains will run to Patna, Danapur, Manduadih and Balharshah. The special trains will mostly have sleeper and general coaches with just two-three AC coaches.
Earlier this week, in order to cut inter-city transmission of COVID-19, CR had cancelled 62 long distance trains. However, a CR official said only trains that plied with low occupancy had been cancelled while the present demand is for the sleeper and unreserved class.
In Pune, there was a massive crowd at the railway station with people ready to board trains such as the Pune-Lucknow Express, Pune-Jammu Tawi Jhelum Express, and Pune-Patna Danapur Express.
Pune railway division spokesperson Manoj Jhawar said extra trains would be run in the coming days to cater to the rush. “We are asking passengers not to spit, and to carry hand sanitisers, wear masks,” he said.
The city unit of CREDAI, the association of real estate developers, said almost 60 per cent of construction workers had either left the city or were in the process of leaving. Pune and its surrounding areas have about eight lakh construction workers, mainly from Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Bihar.
“We had installed hand sanitizers in the labour camps and given masks to the workers. But they were receiving regular calls from their villages. Given the panic, we could not ask them to stay back,” Suhas Merchant, president of CREDAI Pune Metro, said.
Sachin More, who runs one of over 950 agencies in the city providing private security guards, said he was unable to convince his employees to stay back despite promising them a salary hike. “The amount of overtime is being increased as there is shortage of manpower now. Those who are leaving are being told that they might not get back their jobs on their return, but it is not enough to convince them,” he said.
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