As the government considers various options for a post-lockdown exit strategy, the Railways will be speaking to states to understand if there is any need for targeted special trains for limited, essential movement of people, like labourers, those stranded, etc.
This is to enable the national transporter and government to gauge if states would be on board such a plan, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi telling political parties Wednesday that no one had suggested that the government lift the national lockdown — set to end on April 14 — in one go.
The Railway Board has authorised general managers of zonal railways to speak to state chief secretaries to ascertain the demand, sources said.
Earlier, in several deliberations during the lockdown period, states had sought transportation for people stranded in far-flung areas. Besides, factories in various parts of India processing COVID-19-related orders are facing shortage of labour, as migrants have gone back to their villages and can’t come back. Labour would also be required in the fields for the harvest season.
Also on the table are one-off special services on some routes. “Like trains without stops, with limited occupancy, while maintaining social distancing,” an official said.
A group of MPs tasked with submitting a report on the nature of fiscal stimulus required at the grass-roots level has, on the other hand, suggested to the government that mass transport facilities like the Railways should stay closed for now to prevent labourers from rushing back home.
The MPs, led by BJP president J P Nadda, felt that once gone, the labourers might not return to cities till at least Diwali, severely impacting economic revival. “This will lead to a situation where the functioning of manufacturing units and economic operations would come to a standstill. There aren’t any jobs in villages either, which could develop into a dangerous situation,” said a source.
Till Wednesday though, there was no indication from the top echelons of the government regarding the strategy to be adopted for the Railways if the lockdown ends April 14. Sources said inputs from the government’s outbreak-containment apparatus to the Railways are clear on the fact that the trend of coronavirus cases does not allow full resumption of services as yet.
A senior Railway Ministry officer said, “In internal deliberations the full resumption of passenger services was not discussed since that is not on the table at the moment. We will be speaking to states to gather further inputs.” The officer added that there would be little point resuming services in states which do not want trains to run or inter-state travel to happen.
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Sources said that much before the 21-day lockdown was announced, states like West Bengal and Jharkhand had officially asked the Railways not to allow any inter-state trains. When Maharashtra was locking itself down in phases middle of March onwards, talks were held between zonal railways and the state government about plans for Mumbai’s local trains.
Sources also noted that several states which would be expected to receive a large population of migrant workers if trains were to run, did not show any keenness for the same at the time migrant labourers were forced to walk hundreds of miles back home from cities.
Amidst indications of the lockdown continuing, at least in some form, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had tasked the Nadda-led group of MPs on March 17 to come up with suggestions that could be implemented in rural areas. They submitted a power point presentation to the minister Wednesday.
Apart from holding off opening up of mass transport facilities, the group proposed that interests of MSME loans be waived off for three months, panchayats be provided more money, agriculture sector be opened up to provide more job opportunities and working days annually under the MGNREGS be increased from 100 to 150, sources said.
Many of the suggestions made by the group in a report earlier had been incorporated by the government in its financial package to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.
The group comprises of Jayant Sinha, Shivkumar Udasi, Sanjay Jaiswal, Manoj Kotak and Rajya Sabha MPs Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, Rajeev Chandrasekhar and Swapan Dasgupta.
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