Every train reached its destination, says Railway Minister Piyush Goyal
Railway minister Piyush Goyal on Sunday rejected allegations that special trains meant to ferry migrant workers back home were mismanaged and some of them took wrong routes and said every single train reached its desired destination, with only a fraction diverted, and in a five-day period that saw a rush of trains headed for East Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, to avert congestion.
Several Opposition leaders, including Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, have alleged that the trains, labelled “Shramik Specials”, were running late by days. Others have alleged that a large number of trains was diverted. According to data collected by the Railway Protection Force and reported by HT, around 80 travellers on these have died, although, to be sure, some of them, according to the force’s own report, had pre-existing health conditions.
The railway minister said the allegations on widespread delays and diversions were “completely baseless and wrong”. “Almost all trains up to May 19 were before time... (So far) only 71 out of 4,040, which is 1.75% trains, were diverted. Charges like ‘kahin se nikle, kahin chale gaye’ (they left from somewhere and went off somewhere else), all that is nonsense. Every train reached the destination, only took a slightly longer route to ease the congestion and keep the flow of trains running. Otherwise, I would have to stop the operation,” Goyal told Hindustan Times in an interview. It was only between May 20 and May 25 that a rush caused a congestion and resulted in diversions and delays, he added. And no train has taken seven or nine days to reach its destination as is being claimed, the minister said.
So far, 4,040 Shramik Specials – necessitated by a national lockdown brought on by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) – have carried more than 5.4 million passengers. The minister said almost 80% of the trains were travelling to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, leading to congestion on the limited routes. And stations which received around three trains a day were being asked to deal with many more.
On being asked why the special trains for migrant workers began operating only by May 1, Goyal said: “The purpose of the lockdown was containment and the idea was that we have to break the coronavirus chain and, therefore, starting the trains any earlier would have been counterproductive. The idea was that all migrants should stay where they are... We also requested states to ensure that they were well-looked after.”
“It needed that five weeks at least to break that coronavirus chain but then, we found that people are getting very anxious... We decided on May 1 to start this and we continued to ramp it up,” the Union minister said.
In March, the Centre halted all passenger rail operations in an attempt to stop the spread of Covid-19. It later announced that special trains for migrant workers and some other passengers would be allowed, but only with strict social distancing norms and other health care protocols.
The Indian Railways said on Sunday it will begin operation of 200 special trains from June 1 and more than 145,000 passengers will travel on the first day as the lockdown measures are relaxed over the coming weeks. These services will be in addition to Shramik Special trains, and other special trains being run since May 12.
Goyal said that the reasons for delays of most of the special migrant trains were not the journeys, but “at the end”. “There were only seven places where maximum trains were headed... Trains were just bunched up. Local administrations were taking precautions, taking three hours for each train or two hours for each train to disembark. Fewer platforms were there. So the bunching and delay happened because of the congestion at the end...”
He said beyond a point, states demanded more stoppages for the trains that were initially origin-to-destination. They couldn’t bring people to the stations in time, the minister said, adding that this caused bunching up. “To ease that congestion, we took a considered view and diverted 71 trains.”
These trains, he said, took a little longer to reach their destinations but that they took “seven to nine days” was a gross exaggeration. “No train took seven or nine days,” he said.
“We never refused a single train. On the contrary, states could not use many of the trains that we provided. Nearly 250 Shramik trains which were provided had to remain unused because the states could not get the passengers in time. Maharashtra alone was over a 100 trains which could not be used. It’s a very unfortunate situation,” he said.
The minister added that despite the diversions, and eateries being closed due to the lockdown, the railways provided food and water, five-six times in some journeys, in the diverted trains. He said 11.9 million meals were provided by the railways in addition to 5.4 million of them provided by the states at the point of embarkation. The railways also provided 15 million water bottles other than those provided by the states. And the states also provided food when the migrants disembarked, Goyal pointed out.
On the issue of deaths – there have been about 80 deaths on board the Shramik Special trains between May 9 and May 27, according to data from the Railway Protection Force – Goyal said they found that in all cases, there were existing ailments. “Some of the stories are sought to be portrayed as if people died of hunger or starvation. I can say with confidence that no one died of hunger,” he said, adding that in long-distance travel, some deaths occur even in normal operations.
He added that Railways has been transparent about the deaths, and insisted on compiling a list of them, and finding out causes even as news reports suggested that “eight or nine migrants” died on trains. The real number has emerged only because of this, he suggested.
“We are very concerned... My heart goes out to the families (of those who have died),” the minister said.
Goyal said some of the deaths could have been prevented with better medical screening but the doctors who were dealing with a heavy flow of people could not be blamed.
He added that 36 pregnant women who were expecting to deliver were allowed to travel in the trains and they went into labour in the course of the journey. “They should have never have been on the train.”
Praising the efforts of railway employees across the country, the minister said: “In such adverse circumstances, moving 54 lakh people, with all the associated health protocols, is certainly not an ordinary operation. And in the extraordinary circumstances, I will say that the railway employees put in their heart and soul... They are as much front-line corona warriors...”
The minister said the special trains will run for as long as there is a demand from states. “We have been asking states... The current demand today is 250-300 trains. Maximum demand is now to West Bengal and to Odisha.”
But the flow is also starting in the reverse direction, he suggested.
“The good news is that a lot of people are travelling back from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Trains are getting booked in the reverse direction also.”