Updated: March 23, 2020 7:54:20 am
Moving to shield crores of people from the risk of community transmission of the coronavirus, the government has suspended all passenger train operations across the country till March 31.
The decision was taken after a meeting chaired by Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister P K Mishra and Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba with Chief Secretaries of states Sunday morning. Officials said the move will also cover local trains and Metro rail systems, but exclude freight operations.
Government sources told The Indian Express that some of the sanitised trains can be earmarked for isolation facilities — possibly two patients in one coach — as part of preparedness, if needed.
While medical experts have described the government’s decision as “a timely step”, its impact on the Railways is significant, especially in terms of numbers.
According to latest figures, the national transporter carried 2.3 crore passengers on 13,523 trains across the country on an average every day — daily commute and long-distance. And officials estimate that given the pattern of cancellations since March 1, the system would have carried about 14-16 crore people on regular services over the next 10 days.
“There would still have been a huge number of potentially exposed people, carrying the virus all over the country, exposing thousands of others along the way,” a senior official said.
“If there is a large community spread of clusters, it will most likely happen in one region or one area. So in that case, we don’t want it to spread from that region to other areas. The epicentre of a cluster was in Italy. But because borders were not closed and people continued to travel to other countries from Italy, every EU country has cases now, and they are in the thousands,” Dr Randeep Guleria, Director, AIIMS, said.
“So the issue is if we have to stop the spread all over the country, we have to limit movement of people from one area to the other,” he said.
For instance, the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, which killed about 50 million across the world including in India, was carried from Europe by soldiers who returned to their homes after World War I.
‘The evolution of pandemic influenza: evidence from India, 1918-19’, a paper published by the US-based National Centre for Biotechnology Information, states: “In the case of India, the Sanitary Commissioner in his report noted that ‘The railway played a prominent part as was inevitable’.”
Significantly, the volume of rail passengers in India is several times that of its counterparts in Europe.
The number of daily passengers in Italy, with nearly 54,000 infected people, is about a tenth of India. Germany, which has so far detected around 13,000 cases, carries around seven million. In UK, where the number of confirmed cases is 5,000, the system transports about 4.8 million.
“Considering that the number of cases is still fewer here, and community transmission has not yet happened, this is a timely step to break the human chain for the virus. By not travelling, especially in trains, the chances of it spreading is greatly reduced,” Dr Anil Kumar, former Director-General (Health), Railways, said.
However, Professor Mohan Rao of Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) said the government has not factored in the “human suffering”. “Hostels are being emptied, tourists are asked to go home. Lots of construction workers are not getting jobs. How are they going to go home?” he said.
For the Railways, meanwhile, the decision is expected to entail losses totalling about Rs 1,600 crore. Over the past two months, officials said, the transporter lost business worth about Rs 700 crore due to cancellations — at least 60 per cent more in March alone than the same month last year.
But officials said these are “extraordinary measures” for public safety, which cannot be valued in terms of money. Besides, they pointed out, freight operations have not been interrupted, with 61,000 wagons in play Saturday.
Officials also said the entire ticket amount will be refunded to those who had booked in advance to travel during this period. But the refund period has been extended from three days to 90 days.
Meanwhile, around 300 trains, which has started their run before the Janata Curfew Sunday, would reach their destinations by Monday evening, officials said.
The latest decision follows a string of meetings over the weekend, up to 4 am Sunday, at various levels in the Railways. The PMO took the final call after railway stations in cities, such as Mumbai and Pune, witnessed large crowds of people scrambling to return to their villages.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had urged people to not travel as this could help spread the virus in the villages.
Tweeting in Hindi, Modi said: “Due to the scare of Corona, a lot of my brothers are trying to leave the cities where they work and go to their villages. Travelling in crowded spaces increases the risk of its spread. It will increase danger for the people where you are going and the difficulties for your village and families will also increase. I urge you to stay wherever you are for a few days. With this we can all stop this disease from spreading. We are playing with our health by crowding the stations and bus terminals. Please think about yourself and your families. Don’t venture out of your homes if not absolutely necessary.”
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