Representational Image, Courtesy: Killian Pham/ Unsplash.

First Hand Account of a Shramik Special Train Belies Railway Ministry Claim

–Shams Khan

On late Saturday morning of May 23, Fazal Hayat, a migrant worker from Patna who got stuck in Mumbai amidst lock down alighted from a train at the Danapur Junction, located in the outskirts of Bihar’s capital. The CST(Mumbai)- Bettiah, Shramik special super-fast train ferrying Hayat and more than 15 hundred other migrant workers took 65 hours to reach Danapur. Normally a super-fast train concludes the trip between the financial capital and the state capital in less than 30 hours.

During the journey, when the passengers lodged protest over frequently stopping of the train, the officials on duty had a ready-made excuse—may be justified—that they are not getting the ‘line clear’. Ironically, Railway is functioning way below its actual capacity, since apart from Shramik specials, barely goods and few special trains are plying at the moment.

Except, the inordinate delay was not the only difficulty that Hayat and his fellow travelers had to face after getting trapped in helpless conditions since the imposition of lock down on March 24. In above 40℃ scorching summer heat, 12 people were made to travel in one compartment which consists only of 8 seats. Needless to say, what sort of social distancing norms would have been possible in such overcrowded travelling.

Moreover, throughout the journey these migrant workers had to remain content on just one meal (dinner) a day. While at the time of boarding the train, Railways had handed out a packet of roasted chickpeas and biscuits to the passengers.

Fortunately, Hayat and other passengers of the said train had not bought the ticket for themselves. After herculean efforts of days, they received the tickets from authorities. However, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t pay at all, since without obliging the local authorities, it would not be possible for them to make it to the train.

Several electronic media reports suggest that similar or much worse situations prevail in other trains going to UP and Bihar. In one such case, the passengers of a Muzaffarpur (Bihar) bound train originating from Visakhapatnam, protested against delay, lack of food and water. The angry Passengers could be heard in tv reports blaming that they paid 1500 for 600 rupees train ticket.

Notwithstanding the miserable travel experience, Hayat is overwhelmed by the gesture of his co-passengers, who on knowing that he and one other Muslim are observing fast, provided them all sort of comforts like leaving seats for them in night, arranging water bottles etc. “It would have been much harsh experience had these non-Muslim fellow travelers not offered this sort of hospitality, I am deeply grateful for them,” Hayat said. 

After arriving Patna, Hayat got out of the train fearing he might be put into quarantine. Reluctantly, he asked a policeman on duty, ‘where the local passengers should proceed?’ The policeman promptly suggested to go out and take autos for wherever he wanted to go. However, passengers who got down on other stations had been put into quarantine.

Surprisingly, no health screening had been done for the passengers who deboarded at Danapur Junction. Though passengers had undergone Medical Checkup in Mumbai for getting the mandatory certificate which according to Hayat, was merely a ‘khana Purti’ (formality). He said, ‘Medical personnel just confirmed with the migrant workers, if they had any COVID-19 symptoms.’

On Friday, amid rising cases of Corona-virus in the state, authorities have decided to restrict the requirement of mandatory institutional quarantine for only those returning from 11 cities which include Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata among eight others. The decision was taken on the basis of findings that the proportion of positive cases is higher in those migrant workers who are coming from Red zones cities.

One can understand the limitations in putting every migrant worker in state-run quarantine center. Moreover, Reports and visuals emerging from quarantine centers across the state paint a terrible picture of these facilities. However, the absence of any health assessment mechanism at end point of a train cannot be justified; particularly, when the train is coming from a city which is a hub of COVID-19 infections. Can the state afford this casual approach in dealing with Corona-virus? Especially, considering the existing dire situation of medical infrastructure in Bihar. The other important question is why social distancing norms are being compromised on trains? 

One view is that the state Government has realised that COVID-19 is not as lethal as it made out to be. So far, the death ratio is very low while the proportion of people recovering after getting infection is considerably high.Therefore, a sense of complacency appears to be creeping in the system.

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