Social distancing dies on Day 1 of train services

After almost 50 days of the lockdown, the Indian Railways finally resumed some of its services. While opening up public transport during a pandemic in a country like India would always be akin to a can of worms, there are measures that could ensure better safety of citizens. The Delhi Police, though, seemed to have missed that memo.

The Indian Railways had come up with guidelines to ensure the safety of passengers. One of the primary ones was that only passengers with valid tickets would be allowed into the station and that too just 90 minutes before the departure of the train. The first train to leave was the 4pm one to Bilaspur, which was followed by the 4:45pm one to Dibrugarh.

The Delhi Police, which had two days to chalk out a plan of action to maintain passenger safety, was caught napping as passengers for the two trains lined up together at the station entrance at around 2:45 and flouted social distancing norms to ensure a speedy entry process. At the heart of the action i.e. outside the railway station, just a handful of police personnel were present at the spot and as the passengers pushed each other inside, the police resorted to maintaining the queue rather than enforce social distancing norms.

All the way to the entrance of the main building, people were lined up as they usually would in pre-Covid times. “It’s searing hot and the line seems to be long. What if we miss this train?” said Sangeeta, clutching her two-year-old baby, when asked why she wasn’t maintaining the WHO mandated one-metre distance from the nearest person. It wasn’t that the police didn’t have help, volunteers of the Youth Congress came with multiple packets of masks, sanitisers, biscuits and water packets for the travellers.

“We still haven’t been told what to do and how to help,” said Mahendra, one of the volunteers. As the media glare grew intense and public health safety becoming alarmingly lax, a high-ranking official of the Home Ministry arrived. He went inside, talked to the higher ranked police officers at the spot and someone came up with a novel solution. All passengers were allowed inside in a whoosh with the media not allowed in, the police had got its reprieve in managing to avoid the barrage of TV journalists showing live visuals of the force’s lack of planning.

From New Delhi, the newly resumed passenger trains will connect to Mumbai, Secunderabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Ahmedabad, Howrah, Thiruvananthapuram, Patna, Jammu, Dibrugarh, Agartala, Bilaspur, Ranchi, Bhubaneswar and Madgaon. Bookings for these trains will be available only via the IRCTC website and that is where the first problem surfaces. Many migrant workers and the underprivileged alleged that the trains were being run only for the rich while the poor were being left to fend for themselves.

“Sab ameeron ko ticket mil gayi hai, koi majdoor dikh raha hai aapko? (Only the rich have got tickets, do you see any migrant labour among them?),” said Bablu, who lived in a shanty near the station and was witness to the hundreds waiting for their trains since morning. The Central government, on its part, clarified that it opened online bookings for all, as for migrant labourers specifically, it had run the Shramik special trains. While measures were also taken to ensure that touts and agents cannot book tickets, many underprivileged workers alleged that without proper internet access, they would never be able to book tickets back home.

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