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.
On the morning of 23 May, around forty workers left Khizrabad after successfully registering themselves for the Shramik Special that would leave from Delhi’s Anand Vihar railway station for Bihar that afternoon. They had to first go for a medical screening at a nearby health check-up point set up by the Delhi government, following which they were taken in buses to the railway station. The group got delayed during the medical check-up, and they were asked to board a different train that was also going to Bihar, but to a different district called Purnia, nearly four hundred kilometres from Chhapra.
“When we reached the station, we were given tickets and asked to catch a particular train which was from Anand Vihar to Purnia,” Dinesh Rai, a worker from Chhapra who was staying in Khizrabad, told me. Rai added that officials at the station told them that the train would go through Chhapra, and by around 2 pm, they had boarded the train and were ready to leave. “The train started and we were very happy that within a maximum of 24 hours, we would reach our destination in Chhapra.” But that did not happen. The train was diverted to Varanasi and Mughalsarai in Uttar Pradesh, and then to Sasaram and Gaya in Bihar, before finally stopping at Patna at 4 am on 25 May—around 38 hours after the journey began. The train did not go to Chhapra at all.