“Everything about the Indian government’s policy towards the country’s large, vulnerable population of migrant workers has been a mess,” we wrote at the beginning of the month. As India approaches the end of Lockdown 4.0, this unfortunately still holds true.
The current phase of the tragic botch-up is even more baffling.
There is no doubt that the question of whether large-scale movement should have been allowed from urban areas to rural ones and from rich, better-equipped states to poorer ones was complicated, even if the Centre resolutely ignored compassion as a consideration in its decision-making process.
But on April 29, it decided to permit the operation of trains to take stranded migrant workers back home. By April 29, after more than a month of lockdown, the government had plenty of time to figure out what to do about the migrant workers who wanted to go home, a concern that had become apparent from even before lockdown was announced.
Instead, the result was chaos. There was a convoluted procedure for those who hoped to register for trains. No one was given clear information The Centre at first did not want to be involved in the operation or pay for the tickets, leaving it to states to coordinate between themselves. Then, suddenly, after the problems were highlighted by the Oppostion, there was a complete u-turn with the Centre taking charge – this time without any coordination with the states.
No wonder that tens of thousands of Indians continued to take to the roads to walk, cycle or attempt dangerous journeys in trucks back home.
Over the last week, scores of stories have emerged of how the Indian Railways has mismanaged the movement of these trains, leading to delays stretching on for days, with passengers going hungry and without water. As of Thursday, nine people had died on the Shramik trains in 48 hours, the Indian Express reported. On Wednesday, a heartbreaking video of a toddler trying to wake up his dead mother lying on the platform at a railway station went viral.
The Centre has tried to brush off these reports. It has claimed that those who died on the trains were “old, sick people and chronic disease patients”. It insists that the trains that were delayed by many hours taking unconventional routes, such as one from Mumbai to Gorakhpur that ended up in far-off Odisha, were just involved in “route rationalisation”.
It claimed that these diversions were necessary because of the congestion along the way. One Railway official told the Indian Express that these measures were effected “so that trains are not held up at one place for hours without water and food”.
Except, this is exactly what happened. Numerous accounts make it clear that passengers were not given even the basics.
“We should have reached the previous night itself,” one passenger told Scroll.in. “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.”
The Indian Railways, the organisation famed for being able to move millions of people every day, has been unable to organise a few hundred trains daily, without extremely long delays. It has failed to provide food and water to the passengers.
The Railways can offer all sorts of explanations – delayed departures, congestion on the route, the lack of timetables – but all these point to immense organisational failures. Nobody is claiming that these operations are easy. But the magnitude of the mess reveals just how little thought and planning has gone into movements that have been predictable for weeks, if not months.
Union Minister for Railways Piyush Goyal has spent the last few weeks squabbling with states about trains. The incidents and deaths over the last few days should remind him to focus first on the organisation that he is supposed to be overseeing before he starts to point fingers at others.