The Indian Railways is set to operate 200 new trains from Monday, the first day of the “Unlock 1” phase of the nationwide lockdown imposed to limit the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, PTI reported. The Railways said 1.45 lakh passengers will travel by these trains on Monday.

The new trains will be added to the “Shramik Special” services the Ministry of Railways has been running since May 1 to ferry migrant labourers to their home states. It had also started 15 trains with Delhi as one of the destinations, from May 12.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has said that all passengers boarding trains will be screened and only asymptomatic ones will be allowed to board.

Railway minister denies mismanagement of trains

Railway Minister Piyush Goyal on Sunday denied that “Shramik Special” trains were mismanaged and some of them took wrong routes, the Hindustan Times reported. Goyal told the newspaper that every train had reached its destination and only a minuscule percentage were delayed.

On May 23, a train which left Mumbai for Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh ended up in Rourkela city in Odisha, sparking controversy and condemnation from the Opposition. Several Opposition leaders, including Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi, alleged that the “Shramik Special” trains have been running late by days. Others claimed that many trains had been diverted.

“Almost all trains up to May 19 were before time,” Goyal told the Hindustan Times. “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, [some] only took a slightly longer route to ease the congestion...”

The Centre had started the special trains on May 1 after fierce criticism from all quarters about the plight of migrant workers, hundreds of thousands of whom attempted to walk long distances to their hometowns. Some labourers died on the way, of illnesses or in accidents.

Goyal said that between May 20 and May 25, there was congestion in the routes. He said that the claims that trains took seven to nine days to reach their destinations were bogus. The minister added that 80% of the trains had been travelling to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, adding to the congestion.

“There were only seven places where maximum trains were headed,” the railway minister said. “Trains were just bunched up. Local administrations were taking precautions, taking two or three hours for each train to disembark. Fewer platforms were there. So the bunching and delay happened because of the congestion at the end...”

Goyal claimed that states were unable to get the migrant labourers to the stations on time for them to board the trains. This caused bunching up of trains, he said. Goyal added that states also demanded more stoppages for the trains. “Nearly 250 Shramik trains which were provided had to remain unused because the states could not get the passengers in time,” he asserted.

The railway minister defended the government from criticism about the distribution of food and water to migrants on board. He said the Railways sometimes provided food and water five to six times per journey, despite eateries around the country being shut. Goyal said the Railways provided 1.19 crore meals, in addition to 54 lakh meals the states provided to migrants at the place of boarding.

Goyal also said that all 80 people who died on board these trains between May 9 and May 27 had existing ailments. “Some of the stories are sought to be portrayed as if people died of hunger or starvation,” he said. “I can say with confidence that no one died of hunger.” Goyal claimed that in long-distance travel, some deaths occur even during normal times.

Migrant worker dies on Malda-bound train

Meanwhile, the West Bengal Police said on Sunday that a 50-year-old migrant worker died onboard a “Shramik Special” train arriving from Rajasthan, PTI reported. Passengers had to travel with the body for eight hours, they added.

The deceased was identified as Buddha Parihar, from Harishchandrapur in Malda district of West Bengal. He was employed in a hotel in Bikaner in Rajasthan for nearly 20 years. His brother-in-law, Saraju Das, also worked with him at the same hotel.

Parihar and Das had lost their jobs due to the lockdown, and were running out of money even as they attempted to return to Malda, the police said. They finally succeeded in boarding a train around 11 am on May 29. However, Parihar died on the train around 10 pm the following day, when it was near Mughalsarai in Uttar Pradesh.

The death triggered panic in the compartment, with passengers fearing Parihar had died of Covid-19. Railway doctors were able to attend to the body only after the train reached Malda at 6.30 pm on May 31. The body was then handed over to the Government Railway Police.

In a written statement, Das said Parihar suffered from tuberculosis, and he had given him medicines to put him to sleep. Malda District Magistrate Rajarshi Mitra confirmed that Parihar had TB. He added that Das will be tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus.

By Monday morning, India had reported 1,90,535 cases of the coronavirus, including 5,394 deaths, according to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The fifth phase of the lockdown, with phased relaxations, began on Monday. The Centre has extended the nationwide lockdown until June 30 only in the containment zones, but permitted restaurants, malls and religious places to reopen elsewhere from June 8.

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