Special trains ferry stranded migrants home
Amid demands by states and a recognition of the logistical challenges involved in transporting millions of people back to their home states, the Centre on Friday decided to allow special trains — called Shramik Specials — to enable stranded migrants to return home.
States have welcomed the government’s decision.
Five such trains operated on Friday. This is the first time any passenger rail services operated in the country since they were suspended on March 22, three days before the national lockdown. The railways will charge fares for tickets on these trains. It has, however, categorically clarified that these trains are only meant for individuals who are nominated and registered by state governments, and not for regular travel.
In a new order that expands the scope of an earlier order which allowed the movement of migrants only in buses, the ministry of home affairs said, “The movement of migrant workers, pilgrims, students, tourists and other persons, stranded at different places, is also allowed by special trains to be operated by the ministry of railways.” The order said that the railway ministry would designate nodal officers for coordinating with states and Union territories, and issue guidelines for sale of tickets and social distancing norms to be observed.
The government emphasised that this was being done on May 1, which is marked as the Labour Day. Millions of migrant workers have been struggling after the lockdown was announced, facing a shortage of food and income, and have been seeking to go back home hundreds of kilometres away, including by foot.
The Centre came up with a protocol for road movement on Wednesday, after persistent demands by states and a looming humanitarian crisis. But when the scale of the movement was assessed — there were close to ten million migrants registered with state governments — states asked for special trains.On Thursday evening, officials from the home ministry, including the home secretary, met with the railway board and officials from the Railway Protection Force (RPF), which led to the order.
Later in the day, the railway ministry said that trains would operate from point-to-point on the request of the concerned state governments. Senior officials would be appointed as nodal officers. It clarified, “The passengers have to be screened by the sending states and only those found asymptomatic will be allowed to travel.” It would also be the responsibility of the sending governments to bring such individuals to the designated stations in sanitised buses, following social distancing norms. All passengers will have to mandatorily wear masks; while meals and drinking water are to be provided, according to the ministry, by the sending government.
The railways will charge passengers for the journey, which will include the price of regular sleeper class tickets, a superfast charge of ₹30 and an additional charge of ₹20. “This includes meals and drinking water for long distance trains. State governments will coordinate and can pay on passenger’s behalf, “ the ministry stated. It will also ensure social distancing norms in trains. Aout 1,000-1,200 passengers are expected to travel in each train. Each coach has a capacity of seating 72 passengers and only 54 passenger per coach will be allowed. In coupes, six passengers have been allowed instead of eight.
The ministry statement also defined the role of the receiving governments. “On arrival at the destination, passengers will be received by the state government who would make all arrangements for their screening, quarantine if necessary and travel from the railway station.” State governments have put in place new protocols for medical check-up and quarantine for workers expected to return in the special trains.
Trains operated between Lingampally in Telangana to Hatia in Jharkhand; Aluva in Kerala to Bhubaneswar; Nasik to Bhopal; Jaipur to Patna; and Kota in Rajasthan to Hatia on Friday. A train between Nasik and Lucknow got rescheduled in consultation with state governments, according to an official familiar with the development.
The first train was the one between Telangana and Jharkhand, which had about 1,200 migrant workers on board. Passengers expressed happiness at the opportunity to return home, finally. Santosh Kumar Singh, 27, a worker from Jharkhand’s Daltongunj, said over phone that they were allowed in the train after proper screening. “We are being provided food on time and have faced no problem.”
Amid apprehensions that the announcement of special trains could lead to crowding in stations, the railway ministry also reiterated these were special trains planned for nominated people identified and registered by state governments. “No one under any circumstance should come to railway stations looking for trains. We will not issue any tickets to any individual or entertain any request from any group or individual. We will allow only those passengers to board whom state government officials bring to the railway stations,” it clarified.