After struggling for two months with little food or money, workers from Delhi’s Khizrabad area were excited to finally begin their journey home to Bihar’s Chhapra district, on 23 May. They were going to board one of the Shramik Special trains, which the central government had started for stranded migrants workers after a sudden, ill-considered and poorly implemented nationwide lockdown had left them in conditions of despair. But the central government appears to have rolled out the Shramik Specials with the same rushed incompetence that has marked India’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, the workers had to endure endless hours of delays, hunger, unhygienic conditions and uncertainty before they finally reached home. Most of all, the workers said, there was confusion and chaos.
The experience of the Khizrabad workers formed part of a large chorus of accounts that have emerged, of passengers left without food or water and with no idea about when they could expect to reach home, if at all. The situation is so dire that passengers have even reportedly died due to hunger, though the railways argued that it had not been confirmed by post mortem reports. The poor management, planning and execution of the Shramik Specials also led to several instances of trains destined for one state taking circuitous routes through distant states, causing inordinate delays and leaving passengers baffled. Shiva Gopal Mishra, the general secretary of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation, noted that these delays, in turn, escalated the hygiene and water crisis in the trains.
Several railways officials said that trains across all routes were getting delayed due to the congestion on the lines. Another common refrain among the railway officials was that the lack of coordination between the centre and different state governments. “This could have all been easily avoided by better coordination,” a station director speaking on the condition of anonymity said. But proper coordination and carefully planned policies have been a far cry from the Narendra Modi administration’s response to the pandemic. “The overall experience during the COVID crisis shows that knee-jerk reactions are being taken under media pressure,” Mishra said.