Updated: March 29, 2020 12:45:43 pm
A week before migrant workers took to the streets to walk back to their villages in faraway Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in defiance of the lockdown, the Centre had all the indications about a surge in demand from migrant workers to go back home from cities locked down to contain the spread of Covid-19.
Through 24 hours after the Janata Curfew on March 22, an estimated 10,000 migrant workers from Maharashtra travelled to Bihar in five special trains, which had to be run because they showed up at the railway stations and wouldn’t leave, bringing railway authorities under pressure in view of the Covid-19 outbreak.
One train, the 01139 Pune-Danapur Special, commenced barely hours before the Janata Curfew kicked in at 7 am last Sunday. Incidentally, it was also the day that Railways announced suspension of all services until March 31.
Maharashtra enforced a curfew in the state immediately after the Janata Curfew ended at 9 pm. The curfew was effective till 5 am Monday morning, after which a statewide lockdown kicked in. The state, with the highest number of Covid-19 positive cases, had started gradually shutting down its public places a week before that. With everything shut, labourers scrambled to the railway stations.
Two days earlier, on Friday, the Prime Minister had a video conference with all state CMs, emphasizing the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis. The same evening, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray scaled up the restrictions, asking all private establishments to completely shut down until March 31. Earlier, the state had suggested they cut down staff attendance to 50 per cent. This triggered a massive rush of migrant workers to stations since they felt they cannot afford to stay on in the city. On March 24, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day national lockdown in an address to the nation, Thackeray suggested he did not know this was coming. “Modiji made careful and serious statement to us. I was also shocked for a moment after hearing about 21 days lockdown,” he said, addressing people of his state.
Although state CMs did not know about the announcement in advance, and that the lockdown would last 21 days, they were not completely surprised either. By March 23, a day before the nationwide lockdown was to be effective, 30 states and Union territories had announced a full lockdown covering 548 districts. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha had closed only certain areas. Sikkim and Mizoram were the only states yet to issue a lockdown order.
In Maharashtra, two special trains departed from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminal station on March 21. The 01101 special train left CSMT station for Patna via Nashik, Manmad, Jabalpur, Prayagraj Cheoki and Mughalsarai. The 01141 special train left for Asansol via Manmad, Jabalpur, Prayagraj Cheoki, Mughalsarai, Gaya and Dhanbad.
Between March 20 and 22, three special trains full of migrant labourers left Pune for Bihar’s Danapur station via Manmad, Jabalpur, Prayagraj Cheoki and Mughalsarai.
“After assessing the demand on the ground, we had to make special trains to send them to their destinations, to clear the rush,” said a senior railway official who did not wish to be named. “There was no restriction on running special trains as there was no talk of lockdown. We were merely advocating users to avoid non-essential travel and cancelling low-occupancy trains,” he said.
All this while, the Railway management, right up to the Railway Board, was aware that a “demand” for such travel was building up.
Initially, by March 21, when there was no talk of a nationwide shutdown of train services beyond the Janata Curfew, Central Railways and Western Railways planned to run some 15 special trains to take migrant labourers back home. However, that idea needed to be dropped post Sunday.
When these trains were being planned to be run and Railway authorities internally were informing each other, the Bihar-based East Central Railway alerted the state government that a huge number of people were coming from COVID-19-affected areas and the state needed to put a plan in place.
An official, who attended the meeting in which top Bihar bureaucrats were present, said the railway authorities informed the state government the need for a screening protocol for such a huge crowd. A school next to the Danapur station was then earmarked for screening. “Each passenger was taken straight to the school to screen temperature and take details. They were also stamped with 14 days of home quarantine,” an official said.
A special train also ran from the Surat side when the countrywide lockdown of all train services was announced Sunday. An estimated 100 regular trains, that had started their runs before the Janata Curfew, were reaching their respective destinations including in Satragachi in West Bengal. The last such train terminated at 9.55 am on March 25. One such regular train was from Ernakulam to Patna which again brought in several hundreds of migrant labourers.
Officials told The Sunday Express there is no indication that train services will resume in view of such large swelling of migrant labourers. Instead, the instructions are to “take care” of them.
“We fed a large number of labourers in Shakurbasti in Delhi. We are reaching out to tell them not to panic and be where they are, and that whatever help they need in terms of food and all will be provided,” Railway Protection Force Director General Arun Kumar told The Sunday Express.
(With inputs from Vishwas Waghmode in Mumbai)
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