Run railways run: Shramik trains have seen horror stories. It’s time to resume normal services

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It was always going to be challenging to transport migrants back to their home states while following standard protocols to limit the possibility of virus transmission. Railways, India’s lifeline, were naturally entrusted with the task. The results have been miserable. From chaos at embarkation points, to appalling travel conditions coupled with inexcusable diversions and delays in the midst of a heat wave, the plight of migrants has seemed without end. Some, tragically, have not survived the long train journeys where even drinking water ran short.

Yesterday the Supreme Court issued an interim order detailing measures to ease their journey home but the entire exercise to run Shramik trains for migrants has shown up the gaps in India’s administrative capabilities. Centre and states have had coordination problems which have spilled over into political bickering in the backdrop of a national crisis. Migrants are going home to states which are really stretched and are unable to cope with the health protocols needed to screen returnees. And despite moving lakhs of people home, the rush continues. At this point, it’s time to consider a change in approach. Some of the rush, which offset the gains of the lockdown, is on account of the uncertainty surrounding public transport.

It’s time to quickly move back to a normal schedule of trains, subject to social distancing norms. The collapse of the holiday season will make it plausible to observe social distancing norms without resorting to rationing of trains. More broadly, rollback from the lockdown will also reduce the demand for the journey home. If economic activity picks pace many migrants may choose to stay back. But for this virtuous cycle to kick in, it’s important that Railways resume functioning normally. Normal functioning should include provision of basic amenities that prevents train travel from becoming a nightmare.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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