The chaos of Shramik trains repeats the poor planning that marked India’s pandemic response

The central government’s poorly planned roll out of the Shramik Special trains forced workers to endure endless hours of delays, hunger, unhygienic conditions and uncertainty before they finally reached home. Mahesh Kumar A / AP Photo
28 May, 2020

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.

“The situation was worse than what we faced in Delhi during the lockdown,” Rai told me.“What would we do if the train went to Purnia? How would we get back from there? There was no one we could ask about what was going on. All these things were in our minds, disturbing us.” In fact, the diverted route was only one of several problems faced by the passengers. “We were without food, without water and in a route that was not known to us,” Rai said. His friends, too, discussed how the unknown route and delays had compounded other issues, such as a lack of food and water, the toilets had become filthy, and people had begun falling sick due to the unbearable summer heat.

As time passed, anger and desperation grew among the passengers. Rai and his friend Mithilesh Sah, another worker who was staying in Khizrabad, shared videos recorded at the Anugraha Narayan Road railway station at around 7 pm on 24 May, when passengers of the train came out in search of food and to take water. In the video, different passengers said that they had not been provided food. “I sat in the train at 2 pm and we have not been given any food,” one passenger said, after the person recording the video persuaded him that he could not be identified from behind his mask. “There are small children who have not been given food or water.” Shortly after, the crowd of visibly angry passengers broke into slogans against the Bihar government and its chief minister, Nitish Kumar. They shouted, “Nitish Kumar murdabad!”—Down with Nitish Kumar.

At 4 am, after being left without food or water for hours according to the workers, the train slowed into Patna railway station. Rai and the group took a rickshaw to Chhapra, located about seventy kilometres away. Their journey, they all told me, forced them to endure significant physical and mental stress and they finally did not even reach the destination they were told the train would take them. “The confusion and uncertainty in the entire route after Varanasi was a tough period for us,” Rajnath Prasad Yadav, another worker who left Khizrabad with Rai, said. “It was a painful experience. We never thought that any train journey would be so difficult.”

The central government began running the Shramik Special trains on 1 May after facing severe criticism for its poor handling of the lockdown, and the large-scale migration that it triggered as workers were forced to walk for hundreds of kilometres to return home. After several missteps, which led to stranded workers gathering in huge numbers at bus stations at inter-state borders and at railway stations, the centre announced that day that it would run the Shramik Specials for stranded workers and students, among others. Since then, the Indian Railways has reportedly transported over forty lakh migrant workers in over three thousand trains.

An examination of these operations reveal multiple gaps in the system that have created serious issues for passengers of the Shramik Special trains. For instance, the station director said that there were several instances of more than ten trains terminating at a particular station. “Taking into account an average of two–three hours to complete the formalities for every train, it’s difficult to manage ten trains in 24 hours, which creates the congestion,” the station director said. He noted that each train was taking longer than usual at the destination stations because the lockdown protocol—which included recording the passenger details and conducting another medical screening—would take hours.

The station director explained that this also led to last-minute diversions in the train routes, which created issues for passengers, who might be forced to deboard at unknown locations, and the state administration, which has to receive the passengers and conduct formalities such as medical screenings. For instance, Rai and Sah were on a train to Purnia, which had gotten diverted to Gaya, and many passengers deboarded there because they were unsure if the train would go to Patna or Chhapra, or directly to Purnia. “In fear that we may end up going to Purnia, and it was next to impossible to reach Chhapra from there, we deboarded at Gaya,” Rai said.

“Hundreds of people deboarded there,” he continued. “We asked the driver about the route of the train and he said that it would not go to Patna.” After an hour of confusion at the station, the passengers learnt that the train would go to Patna, so they all boarded it once again. “At Patna, our temperature was checked again and we hired an auto to reach Chhapra.” Rai also noted all norms of social distancing were completely violated during the train journey and at Gaya and Patna stations.

Other workers traveling with Rai said that passengers heading towards different destinations were all boarded into the same train without clarifying whether it would be going to their respective stations. For instance, while the train was scheduled to go to Purnia, and had been diverted towards Gaya, passengers headed to Bihar’s Gopalganj and Siwan districts were also asked to board the train. “What will happen to the passengers who were asked to board and then found out en route that the train will not go to their respective place?” Rai asked. “It seems there is little or no concern for this from the government.”

Mishra made a point that had also been conveyed by several railway officials I spoke with, none of whom wished to identify themselves—that the destination states seemed unprepared to handle the number of workers arriving each day on the trains. He added that the state governments were lacking in their sharing of information and data with the centre in a timely manner, which also contributed to the chaotic operation of the Shramik Specials. “Things are being done in haste and in a rat race to show more action, while caring less about the constraints and problems in the entire system behind running the trains,” Mishra said.

A WhatsApp message in wide circulation among railway employees on 27 May explained some of the reasons behind the delayed operation of the trains. “There is indiscriminate planning without concern for rail network capacity, especially when 80% of trains are terminating in UP & Bihar,” the message stated. “Trains follow each other with a minimum gap of about 15 minutes for safety. So across any point, 4 trains per hour × 24 hours = 96 trains can run at the maximum. Leaving aside a few slots for freight and parcel trains carrying essential goods, we are left with about 70-80 slots for Shramik trains per day, whereas 100+ are being run towards a single direction.” It is unclear who is the original sender of this message, but a senior official with the Indian Railways, who also wished to remain anonymous, confirmed the veracity of its contents.

The message further noted that the situation had been exacerbated by the central government’s decision, on 19 May, that the consent of the destination state was not required to run the trains. As a result, any state willing to send back migrants could do so by coordinating with the railways ministry directly, without coordinating with the destination state. In less than a week, the Telangana government reportedly sent 12 trains to Odisha carrying migrant workers, without any prior intimation to the receiving state government. “Given that the receiving states don’t need to give consent anymore, origin states are sending trains to particular destinations en masse without consideration of what happens once they send off a train, often several hours later than the schedule given by railways,” the message noted. 

There appeared to be a consensus among the railways officials I spoke with that the central government’s measures during the pandemic had been in reaction to the media pressure upon them. For instance, the lockdown had been imposed without considering the migrant workers who would be left helpless, and though their plight was evident from the beginning, no significant measures were taken to address their concerns. Even despite the introduction of the Shramik Specials, the issue of transporting workers back to their home states does not appear to have taken centre stage for the government until 8 May, when a goods train killed 16 migrants who were walking home along the tracks. Following the incident, the railways significantly increased the number of Shramik Special trains and the number of passengers that each train would carry.

Politicians also seem keen to claim credit and attribute blame for any delays. On 25 May, Piyush Goyal, the railway minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party, and Sanjay Raut, a Rajya Sabha member from the Shiv Sena, entered into a war of words on Twitter. Goyal asked the Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra to provide a list of all passengers and their details for 125 trains that would run from the state. He then tweeted again when the state government was unable to provide the details within an hour and a half.

Goyal, however, has not provided any explanation for why the trains were started only on 1 May, after forcing thousands of labourers to walk home. He has also not explained the miserably conditions under which the passengers are forced to travel, without food, water or electricity, and with filthy, clogged toilets. As of 27 May, there have been reports of at least fifteen deaths in the trains. Yet, Goyal has offered nothing in response and did not respond to my email seeking his comments on the issues surrounding the Shramik trains. Emails and messages to RD Bajpai, a spokesperson with the railway ministry, went unanswered.

Civil-society members who are working with the migrants have been critical of the central government’s approach towards the plight of the labourers in the Shramik Special trains. “Transporting people in times of crisis, with dignity and safety, is not an act of charity,” Moulishri Joshi, a resident of Khizrabad who was part of a group that had been instrumental in supporting the stranded labourers in the area, said. “It is the responsibility of the state and the civil society at large. The images of families packed into general compartment, news of trains running late, no proper food and toilets are very disappointing and a disservice to the society which is coping and supporting each other. Disasters cannot be tackled with resources alone, we need empathy in this time.”

Hema Badhwar Mehra, another member of the group of Khizrabad residents, recounted an account narrated to her by her gardener, Ranjeet, who travelled from Delhi to Bhagalpur, in Bihar. She said that a journey that normally took him one night, had become a 48-hour ordeal for him, in the heat and without food or water, and that he had to ultimately deboard the train at a station four hours away from his house. “It should shake the conscience of every political leader to the core,” Mehra said. “If India in the twenty-first century cannot organise transmigration of labour, it amounts to being a failed state. The governments and administration have failed miserably.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that videos from Anugraha Narayan Road railway station were recorded on 23 May, instead of 24 May.