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A train of afterthoughts: How Indian Railways itself became the story in a lockdown

The journey of railways through Covid-19 symbolises India’s response to the crisis: starting on a high note of hope, but soon giving way to panic and despair.

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At the time of the 21stcentury’s first pandemic, when most public transport is suspended across the world, in India, the largest public transport network and the biggest employer of the country – the mighty Indian Railways – has itself become the story. The journey of the Indian Railways through Covid-19 symbolises India’s response to the crisis: starting on a high note of hope and resolve, but soon giving way to panic and despair as the deep fault lines began to surface.

From the cruelty of making income-starved migrants pay for tickets to ferrying lakhs of them to the safety of their homes; from the heart-rending news of a train running over 16 migrants as they slept in exhaustion on railway tracks to giving hope of some semblance of normalcy by starting select passenger trains for the first time in almost 50 days – with its contradictions and flip-flops, the Indian Railways has at once been the source of both hope and anguish for millions of Indians.

And that is why, it is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.

Also read: 932 Shramik special trains operated since 1 May, over 11 lakh migrants ferried home

Modi’s signature on railways

Over the last six years, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own words, the government has invested enormous political capital in trying to ensure that the Indian Railways becomes the “growth engine of the nation’s Vikas Yatra”. Be it abolishing the railway budget, seeking to shift to commercial accounting, substantially increasing capital expenditure, widespread electrification of the railway networks, allowing competitive operators to run some trains or initiating India’s first-ever bullet train even in the face of political opposition – the Indian Railways did not remain untouched by the Prime Minister’s penchant for turning things around, and implementing reforms long-perceived to be unimplementable.

But when the pandemic struck, few of the bold reforms mattered.

Also read: Railways cancels all regular passenger trains until 30 June, Shramik Specials to continue

The train of afterthoughts 

The railways entered into the pandemic on an impressive note. Spurred into action after the PM’s call for a lockdown, it set up isolation wards in Railway hospitals, converted thousands of coaches into isolation wards, began manufacturing Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), masks and sanitizers, and fed thousands through its IRCTC kitchens, even as it failed to make any revenue in the face of the longest-ever suspension of passenger trains.

But the ad-hocism and contradictions soon began to catch up with the railways’ high speed.

A month into the lockdown, when the national transporter finally started Shramik special trains meant to take stranded migrants, who had lost their sources of income and livelihood in big cities, to their native places, it said that it would make the passengers pay for their own tickets. As a political controversy ensued, a red-faced railways argued that it was bearing 85 per cent of the cost of the tickets, while the states were paying the remaining 15 per cent – a formula it failed to explain even to the Supreme Court.

Before the controversy could die down, a goods train in Aurangabad ran over 16 migrants sleeping on a railway track.

Within days, though, the tragedy of the lockdown’s most hapless victims was eclipsed by ‘hope’ as the railways’ announced that it would start special passenger trains after over 50 days.

But this announcement, too, was followed by multiple follow-up announcements – signaling a lack of forethought and coordination within the transporter.

Day one of bookings for the special passenger trains saw a delay of two hours from when bookings were scheduled to start. The next day, through a late-night tweet, the railways ministry announced that it was compulsory for anyone taking the train to download the Aarogya Setu app – catching its own officials by surprise. Then, the day after, the railways announced that passengers will have to provide their destination addresses in order to help the government in contact-tracing, if need be.

Also read: Special passenger trains depart from Delhi but leave behind those who can’t afford e-tickets

A microcosm

The railways’ flip-flops could be attributed to its bitter organisational politics. Some senior officials say that while in a sweeping reform, the government merged all of railways’ eight services into one without consulting the cadres just months before the pandemic, it could not brush the resentment of the officers under the carpet.

A senior official said that it is the discord between the railway bureaucracy and the political executive that has led to communication gulf, resulting in the flip-flops like the migrant ticket controversy.

However, the ad-hocism of the railways mirrors the ad-hocism inherent in the larger Covid response of the Modi government. With one of the strictest and earliest implemented lockdowns in the world, India entered its battle against Covid-19 on a decisive note. Almost two months into the lockdown, the country has surpassed China in terms of the number of cases and utter confusion on how to kickstart the economy, the decisiveness is increasingly giving way to disquiet and uncertainty.

When all this is over and we would have travelled into a more normal world, looking back at the journey of Indian Railways during the pandemic will surely make us scrutinise the route it took in the lockdown days.

Views are personal.

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  1. Railways spends 65% of its revenue on salaries and pension . When fates cannot be increase because our people are poor and can not afford it . Then how can that’s poor people afford to pay such high salaries and Perqs like free travel of Railway employees . The govt will recover from people as fare or taxes . They have to reduce the salaries of railway employees and outsource it so that costs can gone down

  2. When you critiicse developed countries like USA and Italy with huge resources it is still understandable.But India with it’ s teeming 125 million people,most of them under the poverty line,the yard stick has to change.Yes there have been fallouts but there is a lot of ground which the present Government has covered.The writer needs to have a broader perspective.A free presss need not be a critical one at all times especially now.

  3. If state government or migrant workers have to pay for their return, what for billions of rupees deposited in pmcares fund and what for billions dollar given to indian/central government through WHO, specially when migrant workers are stuck up due to announcement of lockdown without any notice. Also the stimulus package does not appear to be declared for any emergency(covid 19) but supplementary budget which gives nothing immediately to poor. Which ever political party runs the government, story wiil be same, because politics in India is now a very dirty and lucrative business.

  4. Absolutely correct…..In a vast country like ours we take pride in quoting ‘unity in diversity’
    sitting in AC rooms……how difficulty we find even handling a small family of 4 members….
    To manage & satisfy 130 crore people…….is it a joke?
    Kudos to our PM Modi & his team for the excellent manner for handling this crises….
    Please remember mistakes do take place by ONLY those people who perform
    Those who criticise should also give positive suggestions & not criticise for the sake of criticisem

  5. Railways like any other mammoth dinosarous need immediate reforms which this government has indeed initiated. The whole structure of the railways as its is super colonial and archaic. Enables total lack of transparency in procurement and operations. Railways has been always center of many controversies. Despite all that its the operational cadre – the engine drivers, TTs, guards, engineers, signal men and track personnel and also the dedicted officers who’re somehow managing the day to day affairs of keeping the wheels rolling while the few corrupt ones at the top try to hold on to their fiefdoms.

    Its ridiculous if i would tell my boss in a private company that i’m going to start 5 seperate cadre for managing the core functions of the company. Any organization should be a seamless interlinked entity of people, systems and processes. Old structures that create functional silos, opaque bureaucracy and unnecessary hierarchy are best headed for the burial ground.

  6. Appears that it is completely one sided story telling rather than news reporting or analyzing. The writer seems to have a judgement before even ascertaining facts. Fundamentally, lockdown purpose was, is and will be to buy time to prepare. Lockdown itself will not control epidemic with situations where people running away from hospitals in initial stages of lockdown or trying to hide their travel history and symptoms

  7. I am surprised that people like Sanya Dhingra can earn money by writing a load of crap, and finding agencies like Print to publish it. The Indian railways started ferrying migrants from 5 the May and already transported about 12 laks todate. It went smoothly, without any confusion at the boarding point or the destination. So what confusion or flip – flops is she talking about? For downloading the arogya sethu app takes little time, and the people downloaded it before boarding.
    That Sanya is a stinking pervert, is proved beyond doubt, when the deaths of 16 migrants sleeping on the tracks is laid at the Railway’s door. Can there be greater perversion of the truth than this?
    This piece of crap proves that Sanya Dhingra is a moral and intellectual leper, for whom truth is something which can be perverted to fulfil her perverted desires.

  8. If anything needs to be said and underlined it is this that the central government can only do as much as it has done…for efforts to succeed it needs 100% cooperation from its citizens and state governments in a federal setup..we have regularly witnessed the COVID Health workers and police being violently attacked when they go door to door for examination..State Governments starting with Delhi and Maharashtra primarily did not come up with a plan to help the migrants in their states in surviving the crisis..rather the migrants were left to the mercy of the contractors…everyone must own up responsibility to the mess of the is easy to be wiser in hindsight and criticize from the comfort of an ac room..the parallel with the Railway in the article in management of the crisis is irrelevant and in poor taste

  9. The print cannot see good in anything blaming the inventor of the motor car for road accident deaths?

  10. Central govt is not executing it’s power on states to allow more no of trains for labourers and stranded people. In this vast country with a vast migrants and tourists. States say they have no money for trains and centre is responsible for movement of people.states are always beggers asking for funds from central specially West Bengal

  11. Print is meant only for criticizing govt efforts. This is the agenda of this news media. Lutyen’s media group is bundle of gossip mongers & paid journalists.

  12. Mr Sanjay Dhingra, every mistakes can be identified in retrospect. You are at position to bring a difference, not to bring delusion. Wish our journalists grow up.

  13. Article is very good but incomplete. Conveys only one side of story. It’s very easy find lapses. But this article doesn’t elaborate on how things could have been better? And also what things should be kept in consideration before taking future action.
    See everyone is learning on the way and media should now start giving constructive feedbacks. We are all in this together and even government is made by you and myself. Use your pen to guide government and inspire people to come out n help .
    Just a request – till this covid 19 is over don’t criticized anyone ( government , political parties or anyone else ) . This lowers down morale of people who are genuinely helping.

  14. A very good article to set the false narrative……will definitely please your political masters………..the way railway is working is appreciating………..

  15. Why did the workers move if their government made enough jobs in their own States. Secondly, Railway authorities committed to bear 85% of the ticket costs.. balance by respective State governments. Why State governments not owing /sharing the responsibility. Merging of cadres a very wise decision.. It used to be bull fight over decision making process amongst various cadres.

  16. A poorly written article without proper conclusion or supportive references for it information. It’s evident that the author has pre-colored thoughts which was a hurdle in its free flow writings

  17. A poorly written article without proper conclusion or supportive references for it information. It’s evident that the author has pre-colored thoughts which was a hurdle in its free flow writings.

  18. You are the very few…. now days to talk the truth. Please continue your services for a healthy democratic INDIA

  19. Hame ghar Jana hai ham badi musibat me hai apna Pet Bhavrna Muslim hai apna femli ko kaise Pete bhare kisi bhi tarah se app name ghar bhej dijie… police chooki me forme Jama kie jade din ho gya kuchh pata nahi chala.ap se harsh jod ke binti hai.

  20. This article was more about the government than the railways. Would advise you to also state more facts than feelings like the leader of the government you’re criticizing.
    Came here looking for what could be wrong or mismanaged in current special train setup only to see – Views are personal.

  21. There is no criticism it was their job to handle it and it is these times when people look up but they have failed miserably when railways can contribute crores of rupees to PM cares fund why can’t the same transport the migrants free of cost?It is a mere political battle between bjp and non bjp states that the migrants are suffering today. Even the useless package announced by FM seems to be a joke. This govt once again proved that it just can’t handle crisis. Like demonetization .

  22. There is no criticism it was their job to handle it and it is these times when people look up but they have failed miserably when railways can contribute crores of rupees to PM cares fund why can’t the same transport the migrants free of cost?It is a mere political battle between bjp and non bjp states that the migrants are suffering today. Even the useless package announced by FM seems to be a joke. This govt once again proved that it just can’t handle crisis. Like demonetization .

    • Being blind as a bat, you can’t see the laks of migrants transported within 10 days. The State governments have to give permission to the railways for transporting their respective migrants, moron. Is this simple fact so difficult to understand, pea brained?

      • If u want to reply .. come with something real … Talk about what happened to the crores of funds ? Why do the jobless labourers still need to pay for governments unplanned decisions ? If lakhs reached their homes .. who r these walking and dieing on the roads? .. what’s the use of the fund if the poor still need to pay when actually they don’t have any to even afford their meals ?

  23. Such foolish article, those poor migrants paid their ticket even higher than actual price. PM cares funds are not used to help anybody, India is being criticized internationally.

  24. The writer is living in a fools paradise. Maybe he has never seen the masses of UP and Bihar or Bengal and Odisha. Even in City like Mumbai an average of 14 people die due to accidents involving population crossing railway lines or just falling off. It is not flip flop it is the utter disregard of this Indian population to follow laws and rules. Like you are a scourge for journalistic writing so is this dumbhead Babus and the population. Save the world by not writing.

  25. Pandemic has opened the eyes of the Indian Civilians as how significant, important, prominent, cheap travel for Indian poor and most precisely how it is described as a life line of the Country,the Indian Railways. British has done more good than harm and all the strategists of this modern times who wish to be dominant heros have shut.

  26. Tiruppur to Jharsuguda train detail give me I have to go back to Orissa. Pls I don’t work now and I have my family with me.

  27. Why the Print always posts anti Modi comments. Doubt the paper is being funded by Congress party.

  28. Very easy, sitting in an arm chair and criticise. I know about railways because I have worked in a defence psu supplying coaches, specialised railway dept, metro cars and other expat to the nation. I feel that the writer simply should brush up how railways run, if it had been known this would not have been the article. The GoI has done a remarkable job in controlling the virus, but for some stupid super spreaders, the tally would have been different. And for God’s sake do not compare the tally with China, every one in the world knows what China is and still you are comparing with that nation. And do not simply blame railways for the fare to transport migrants , it is the duty of state govt to ferry the migrants in cooperation with IR. So in such a crisis, pl desist from criticising GOI, it is a fashion among certain journalists to do so , anyhow majority of the countrymen know what is what, so such opinions hardly matter .

  29. True, the spectacles used by most of us do not allow us to see both the difficulties and challenges at hand. It refuses to tolerate any
    legitimate questions too on the way we as a society are responding to the pandemuc.

  30. Seems like very soon we will surpass the US and become the number one country in the world. Stupid people taking stupid decisions and throwing the poor in deep misery. It is there for all to see the outcome of all their decisions that poor have to walk back 1000s of km to reach their homes. Poor people are suffering worse than cattle.

    • And stupider morons like you commenting on it. It is a free country and people can walk if they want to, even though trains have been provided. That they preferred to walk for days and spend a lot of money on food and other essentials, instead of waiting their turn, is their choice.

  31. Easy to criticize… Difficult to execute… Spectacles with suspicion can not see anything good.

    • Please get your eyes checked. You are so short-sighted that you cannot see anything, good or bad.

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