Railways fiasco

Nightmare on Shramik Specials

Print edition : June 19, 2020

Medical personnel with a newborn baby on the Jirania-Khagaria Shramik Special train on May 19. Photo: PTI

Migrants board a Shramik Special train through the window, at Danapur railway station in Patna on May 22. Photo: PTI

The Indian Railways’ operation of the Shramik Express Special trains in May has been a national shame. The utter chaos resulted in trains being diverted far away from their supposed destinations, inflicting immense misery on passengers.

Nothing has shaken the conscience of the nation coping with COVID-19 as much as the plight of millions of its migrant workers setting off on cross-country journeys with children and the aged in tow. And no single Cabinet Minister in the Narendra Modi government, barring perhaps the Prime Minister himself and the Finance Minister, has drawn as much ire as Railway Minister Piyush Goyal has for sheer ineptitude and worse. No Railway Minister in independent India has drawn as much ire as Goyal has for his spectacular feat of reducing India’s largest enterprise to a laughing stock. The litany of complaints against him is not confined to just ineptitude in using effectively the valuable assets under his command, but also focusses on the arrogance of his response to criticism. Indian Railways’ utter inability to provide credible and timely information has made matters worse. 

After doing absolutely nothing in the first 36 days of lockdown, Piyush Goyal suddenly decided to start running trains in May. Throughout the month, however, trains went “missing” or went on journeys hundreds of kilometres away from their intended destinations. These “ghost” trains carried thousands of passengers. These unscheduled journeys meant that passengers were provided only a fraction of the food and water that they ought to have been given, that is, if they were given anything at all. According to the Railways’ own sources, at least 81 persons died while travelling, on trains or on railway platforms.

The latter half of May saw a spate of reports in the media, local and national, that trains were straying far away from their stated routes, often taking far longer than scheduled. For instance, a train supposed to travel from Vasai in Maharashtra to Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh ended up at Rourkela in Odisha. 

Another train supposed to run from Bengaluru to Basti in Uttar Pradesh ended up at Ghaziabad, 675 km away by rail. A train that left Mumbai for Patna ended up at Purulia in West Bengal. Within the span of a few days after May 20, there were reports of 40 trains travelling to places hundreds of kilometres away from their scheduled destinations.

Lost trains, distressed passengers

The Railways initially maintained a stoic silence. But the gush of media reports, aided by enterprising reporters who found innovative ways to ferret out news, forced the government to issue denials. Reporters, using “contacts” among passengers travelling on these trains, gathered graphic accounts of the immense suffering that the migrant workers were undergoing. 

One visual by a reporter showed desperately hungry passengers disembarking from a train while it was stationary, gathering maize from fields and roasting them on a fire. Others showed irate passengers packed into compartments with physical distancing norms abandoned. Common to most stories was the utter shortage of food and water for passengers, exacerbated by journey times that were double or even treble those in normal times. A journey that ought to have been completed in about 24 hours was taking more than 72 hours. 

In fact, there were reports of journeys—from Surat in Gujarat to Siwan in Bihar, for instance—taking up to nine days. A loco pilot who steered a Shramik Special train from Bengaluru heading to a destination in north-eastern India told Frontline that there were virtually no arrangements for food and water on the long journey. 

The Indian Railways, despite its many failings, has always been well-regarded for its optimal use of resources; it has also been appreciated for operating efficiently despite severe resource constraints. So, how did the Railways manage to “lose” trains during the lockdown? “Trains cannot be lost in the Indian rail network. That is an impossibility,” a former member of the Railway Board told Frontline. He explained that every trip that a train makes is planned well in advance, and the approval of every Railway Zone that the train traverses is taken before the journey is undertaken. This is not just a matter of complying with bureaucratic niceties but a necessary exercise because each zone needs to plan its traffic accordingly, the retired officer explained. So, what went wrong during the lockdown? 

The Railways’ initial explanation was that the traffic congestion on routes required the trains to be “diverted”. But this was obviously a spurious explanation for several reasons. First, given that the Indian Railways runs more than 13,000 trains, about 6,500 of them passenger trains, every day in normal times, how could a daily average of about 200 trains cause a congestion? True, most of these trains were converging towards particular destinations in some of the poorest States in the country. But railway officials say that even this ought not to have been a major problem. 

One official said: “Better planning by staggering the departure of trains would have been eminently within the capability of the Railways, given its vast experience in handling much higher traffic volumes in normal times.” Second, why should a “diversion” take a train hundreds of kilometres away, and towards a place that is not even in the same direction as the destination? How would it help the Railways to travel to Rourkela if the intended destination was Gorakhpur, about 530 km away? How could a “deviation” that accounts for almost one-third of the about 1,700-km journey be explained rationally? Would it not have made better sense to move the train closer to the intended destination even if “congestion” was a problem? 

How the Railways managed to be so inept remains a question, one which we will turn to a little later. But the unprecedented tragedy that was unfolding on India’s rail network was immediately obvious. 

In his now-infamous presentation to the Supreme Court, in which he described the media as “vultures” preying on India’s poorest, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta indulged in obfuscation. He triumphantly threw numbers at the court, without offering any context—a hallmark of the Modi regime in all matters concerning data. He said 80 lakh meals and one crore bottles of water (presumably one litre bottles) had been provided to passengers on the Shramik Special trains. If the Railways had carried 50 lakh passengers, as Tushar Mehta claimed, this works out to about 1.6 meals per passenger and 2 water bottles per person. Mehta’s own figures reveal the gross inadequacy of what the government provided. How could 1.6 meals and two litres of water be enough for a passenger for the four or more days he had to spend on a train in the height of the Indian summer? 

In fact, the Railways had the capacity to deliver more and better. It is only that neither Piyush Goyal nor anyone else in the government felt the need to use this capacity. The Indian Railways has the capacity to deliver 12 lakh meals every day. In 2018, it announced that it was planning to expand its drinking water capacity to 16 lakh litres a day. 

Indeed, when news of deaths in train toilets and on platforms caught media headlines, the Press Information Bureau, with its new-found penchant for catching “fake” news, dubbed these reports as false. The most dramatic one showed visuals of a toddler tugging at the bedsheet covering his dead mother at Muzzafarpur railway station; according to her relatives, she died of starvation and extreme dehydration on a train. 

The Railways immediately dubbed this as fake news and said the woman had been sick when she boarded the train. Later, the PIB dubbed the news reports as “factually incorrect and misleading” and claimed that the woman, who was in her thirties, was mentally and physically ill. 

The well-known fact-checking website AltNews investigated the case and concluded that the woman’s distressed relatives were pressured soon after her death to say that she had died because she was already ill. A relative also said they had been forced to say that the woman was provided food and water during the journey. He said the PIB’s claim that she was ill was utterly wrong and categorically asserted that she had died of hunger, food deprivation and extreme exhaustion in the heat.

Faced with a barrage of criticism, the leadership of the Railways tied itself into knots. Addressing a press conference, the Chairman of the Railway Board, Vinod Kumar Yadav, made the preposterous claim that the routes of the trains were changed after ascertaining where the passengers wanted to go. This mocked every principle of scheduling rail traffic. Who was to tell the CRB that the railway service was not like a “share” auto in an Indian city that could go to a destination according to where passengers were headed? 

Referring to the specific case of a train that went to Lucknow instead of Prayagraj, Vinod Kumar Yadav said: “These are not regular times and passengers told us where they were heading and how they wished to reach home.” He added to this preposterous claim: When Railways staff “ascertained from passengers that there are fewer passengers heading to Allahabad, compared to Lucknow, after discussing with the State government, we changed the route to make it head to Lucknow”. 

Such statements from the highest levels of the Railway establishment mock at every principle in traffic routing in a rail network and offend the sensibilities of those in the Railways who take pride in the work they do. 

Frequent changes to rules

So what explains the failure of the Railways to manage a fraction of its normal traffic during the lockdown? To answer that question, one needs to look beyond the Railways’ own operational parameters and examine the circumstances in which it was running the special services. The nature of the Indian lockdown provides clues to the question. The lockdown has been steered disastrously by the Union Home Ministry headed by Amit Shah. There have been at least eight travel orders issued by the Ministry in one month, each one adding to the confusion. 

Rajendran Narayanan, academic at Azim Premji University and an activist with the Stranded Workers Action Network, pointed out that “barring one letter dated May 18 sent by Home Ministry to all Chief Secretaries, every order has been lacking in imagination and empathy”. 

The refusal to decentralise authority and decision-making, reflected in the lack of any consultation with the States, has been a hallmark of the lockdown and of its utter failure. 

The initial “rules” for deciding the routes and schedules for the Shramik Specials left them to be decided by the originating and destination States. However, through an innocuous amendment, on May 20, to the rules framed under the auspices of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which has choreographed the lockdown, the requirement of consent from the destination State was dropped. This was what prompted Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan and earlier West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee to register their protests. 

The change that was effected was a sure recipe for disaster. There were two sets of factors that created problems. First, at the practical level, the destination States had to make preparations. Passengers had to be received at stations, screened, tested and quarantined—at home or in institutional centres depending on individual cases. All this had to be done at a time when the State was already under great stress, financially and in terms of personnel and physical resources.

Second, the changes in the rules paid no heed to the capacity of the States on which the burden would fall. The Home Ministry was either oblivious to the brutality of the lockdown it was imposing or it simply did not care. The extreme distress and desperation it was causing in both originating and destination States where the migrants were heading imposed constraints on both sets of States. Originating States like Karnataka were increasingly under pressure from restive workers to let them go home. (The State Intelligence Department had apparently warned the administration that the workers’ agitation might become too hot to handle.) But destination States faced an even bigger problem. 

If Amit Shah or any of his Cabinet colleagues had shown some concern for these workers, they would have known that a significant portion of this workforce was heading to some of the poorest States in the Indian Union—Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. To suddenly receive trainloads of passengers at a few days’ notice was obviously beyond their means. 

An East Central Railway officer, speaking to Frontline, said that it took about three hours just for passengers to disembark from the Shramik Specials; passengers had to be screened and organised depending on their health parameters and then transported to quarantine centres or to their homes. 

“If it takes three hours for a train to be cleared, there is only so much we can do in a single day,” he said. The Railways said that 256 trains were cancelled in May by various States—one of the highest numbers was reported from Maharashtra, which cancelled 105. Piyush Goyal was quick to make political capital of this in the midst of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) efforts to destabilise the Maharashtra government. What he forgot was that Gujarat, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, all BJP-ruled States, cancelled 114 trains. 

Destined towards chaos

It appears that the sheer scale of the problem at destination stations forced States to delay arrivals. And, the Railways decided to let these trains run on and on in directions far away from where passengers thought they were heading. Outrageously, the Railways did not even bother to inform the passengers in which direction they were moving. The much longer journeys, mostly without food or water, also resulted in trains stopping for many hours in the middle of nowhere, parked in the peak of summer with temperatures sometimes hovering above 45 degrees centigrade. Given that trains have no autonomous source of electricity, this was neglect by design at its worst. 

The entire saga of the way this crisis was handled exposed a government that never intended to care for this crucial but vulnerable segment of the working population. The reality is that it never intended to enable these workers to go back home, committed as it was to powerful lobbies that wished this workforce to stay tied to places far from home so that it would be available if and when the wheels of production turned again. It was only extreme pressure, from the media, as well as the workers themselves, that forced the government’s hand. Not many media outlets reported that in Surat town alone, protesting migrant workers were tear-gassed at least five times during the lockdown. 

It took more than a month for Piyush Goyal, perhaps much against his intent, to operate the special trains. But even this was done with not just shoddy planning but with scant regard for treating fellow citizens humanely. A volunteer who was assisting workers in Pune, for instance, said workers were given barely two hours’ notice to leave, and then made to wait almost a day at the railway station before they set off on the long journey home. Many other activists alleged that the chaos caused by Piyush Goyal’s unplanned schedules produced a thriving black market for train tickets. Of course, the pricing of the tickets was a scandal in itself. 

If Piyush Goyal had really intended to send these desperate workers home, he would have started sending them before or soon after the lockdown was announced suddenly on March 24. That would have given him, the States and the Railways the chance to stagger the traffic over a longer period and without all the panic and chaos that the country has witnessed.

India has had a tradition of Railway Ministers resigning in the past in acknowledgement of their failures. Indeed, Piyush Goyal’s predecessor, Suresh Prabhu, resigned in 2017 after a series of major rail accidents. Those instances pale into insignificance in the context of the monumental ignominy that Piyush Goyal has heaped on the Indian Railways and the untold misery he has caused to millions of Indians during the lockdown.

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