At around 4 am on Tuesday, the sound of voices of the platform caused 34-year-old Mohammad Kalimullah to wake up during his trip on the Shramik Express train that was taking him from Mumbai to Bihar’s Katihar district. It turned out that a 58-year-old passenger named Sayan Kumar Singh had died and the police had come aboard at Prayagraj station in Uttar Pradesh to take away his body, Kalimullah said.
“He did not have water to take his medicine,” claimed the factory worker, who was headed home to Madhubani in Bihar.
Kalimullah was repeating a complaint that passengers on Shramik special trains across the country have made: that the authorities had failed to provide them with adequate supplies of food and water during their journeys.
The first time the passengers on Kalimullah’s train were given food since May 25 was at Prayagraj: they got packets of dry bhel. “...How do we eat this dry if we do not have drinking water?” Kalimullah asked. “Even if we do not get food it is fine but we need water.”
The train left Prayagraj at 6.15 am on Tuesday and arrived at Varanasi a few hours later, only to stand there for a few more hours till it started to run at around noon. Despite this, passengers were not given any food or water. They were unable to buy food or water because all the shops at the station were shut, Kalimullah said.
“We will also die like that man,” Kalimullah told Scroll.in on the phone on Tuesday afternoon. “It is difficult to speak without water.”
There was no respite in sight. Though the journey from Mumbai to Katihar usually takes around 36 hours, the train was still far from its destination when he spoke to Scroll.in. “Chaalis ghante ho chuke hai lekin Patna dur dur tak nahi dikhai de raha hai,” Kalimullah said. It has been 40 hours but Patna is still out of sight.
It has been more than two months since Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24 announced a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. With all modes of public transport suspended, lakhs of migrant workers stranded in cities began to walk to their home villages, sometimes over 1,000 km away. More than 170 workers have been killed in accidents on the roads or train tracks. Some died from the sheer exhaustion of walking in the scorching heat.
On April 29, the Centre announced that it would run special Shramik trains to carry migrant workers to their home states. But workers have to get several clearances from their home and host states as part of the process. As a result, many say that getting a ticket on one of these trains is like hitting the jackpot.
Till May 25, the Indian Railways had run 3,274 Shramik trains across the country catering to more than 44 lakh passengers, according to a press release dated May 26 from the Press Information Bureau. It also noted that “trains running today are not facing any congestion”.
However, several reports have emerged of trains being hugely delayed. In addition, passengers said they were not served food or water even as their journeys stretched on for days. Several passengers took to social media to write to the Indian Railways and Railway Minister Piyush Goyal about the dismal services.
On May 26, the Press Information Bureau’s Fact Check handle on Twitter dismissed claims that 40 trains had been diverted from their scheduled routes as “incorrect”.
“Congestion due to 80% Shramik spl [special] trains going to UP and Bihar,” it said. “Thus, trains diverted to reach destinations by other feasible routes as per practice followed in regular ops [operations].”
An unidentified official told the Indian Express that trains “never gets lost”. Instead, the diversions were due to “route rationalisation”, the official told the paper, “so that trains are not held up at one place for hours without water and food”.
Scroll.in sent queries by email to the Railways Board Chairman Vinod Kumar Yadav, regarding train delays and lack of services on Shramik trains. This article will be updated if he responds.
‘Some sort of joke’
Several passengers on board Shramik trains said they had not been served food or water and that the trains had made several stops for hours in the middle of open fields or at platforms where food stalls were shut.
One passenger, who did not want to be identified, said that he had boarded a Shramik train from Bangalore, Karnataka, at around 2.45 pm on May 20 and reached its destination in Darbhanga in Bihar four days later on May 24 at around 4 am. The 26-year-old passenger said he was familiar with the route and added that this trip did not usually take more that two days.
“We were supposed to reach Darbhanga at 6 am on May 22,” he said.
But the train made a number of stops, he said. “The train was running at the speed of 40 kms per hour and it was stopping in the middle of jungles or in open fields…this was somewhere in MP [Madhya Pradesh],” he said. “It was so hot and we could not even drink the water we had.”
One passenger aboard the train tweeted about the experience.
To add to their troubles, the passenger said that on May 21 when the train halted at various stations, railways staff would hurl food parcels into the train, making it difficult for all the passengers to get one.
“Everyone would crowd around the gate,” said the passenger. “Our bogey is very big so barely 40 people got to eat…this is not the way. So most of us did not end up eating at night.”
These passengers did not get any food on May 22, he said. When the train reached Prayagraj at around 1 am, they were given some snacks and water. But train continued to wait at the station till 4.30 am, he said. “This route does not go to Prayagraj…and from there it went to Faizabad,” he said.
The passengers did not get any food till they reached Gorakhpur on the afternoon of May 23 where they were served lunch. They did not get any food that night, he said. “This is some sort of a joke?” he asked.
Complaints of trains halting frequently without adequate supply of food and water came from passengers on other routes as well.
Thirty five-year-old Kundan Shahi boarded a Shramik train at 8 am on May 24 from Darbhanga in Bihar headed for Durg in Chhattisgarh. The passengers were only given food and water on the evening of May 25, he said.
The train also experienced several delays before it got to Durg on May 2. “It has stopped at least 50 times,” Shahi said. “We could not buy anything at these stops because all the shops were shut.”
Another passenger, Govind Kumar had boarded a Shramik train at 6 pm on May 24 from Dankaur in Uttar Pradesh to Dhanbad in Jharkhand. The passengers were given food while boarding and then when they reached Dhanbad at 7 am on May 26. The train made several halts, he said.
“We should have reached the previous night itself,” said Kumar, who worked in an auto-components company in Greater Noida. “The train was stopping at such places where there was no [access to] water. Nothing can replace water…we can buy it also but the train never stopped at such places.”
On the evening of May 25, the train stopped at Mughalsarai station where railway staff had arranged for a water dispenser from which passengers could fill up their bottles. But the train started within a few minutes.
“Only a few people were able to fill…rest of us had to sit in the train,” Kumar said. “The railways minister says that we should boost the morale of the Indian Railways…what morale should we boost? How should we do it? There was no water for us.”
In addition, the passengers did not have access to water in the toilets in the train either, he said.
In addition to the Shramik trains, the Centre announced that it would run 15 pairs of special trains from May 12. However, several delays were reported from the station from where these trains were scheduled to depart.
Chidananda Puri said that his father had waited for nearly four hours at Balasore Railway Station in Odisha on May 25 after the expected departure time of 1.50 pm for a special train to the state’s capital Bhubaneshwar, that was coming from New Delhi. However, the train had been delayed for over 20 hours and Puri had to cancel his father’s ticket. The train arrived in Balasore on May 26 at around noon.
“We had to pay Rs 5,000 to book a private taxi,” he said. Puri said he took to Twitter to ask the Railway Ministry why the train had been delayed. “They responded to me saying that the route of the train had been diverted and started late from Delhi...but this information was not given to passengers,” he said.