The bizarre, often tragic, tale of India’s Shramik Special trains has made clear that the government has not the slightest idea of the number of migrant workers in the country. That they did not figure in the Centre’s decision to lock down the country is now well known. The spectacle of men, women and children walking hundreds of kilometres to their villages has become an indelible image of India’s attitude towards its workers. Now that trains ferrying them home are plying after various ugly tussles over who is to pay — numerous workers, unpaid by their employers, were forced to buy tickets — there are confusions still. Since the decision to run the special trains was taken hurriedly amid political wrangling and moral pressure from the Opposition, there was no planning. It is as if the government plunged into it blind. Two thousand five hundred and seventy trains have run since May 1, a large number among them to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh from western India. The railways minister is talking of running 100 trains a day — no one knows how many migrant workers still need to go home. Unscheduled trips mean congestion of regular routes, necessitating long diversions. Journeys are sometimes taking days instead of hours, sometimes ending in the wrong destination. Trains seem to be losing their way.
The consequences of the absence of coordination, haste, and callousness are disastrous. Since Monday last nine passengers have died, among them a child and a young woman. Food and water handed out at originating stations are not enough, wayside stations off the usual route can give nothing. The travellers suffer immensely from heat, hunger and thirst. The railways’ claim that all those who died were already ill is shocking: do ill people regularly die on trains? Apparently, no regret need be expressed for the deaths of the helpless. Crowded trains are undermining Covid-19 protocols, leaving the receiving states with problems regarding quarantine. The chief minister of West Bengal has protested against the Centre’s decision to send 36 trains all of a sudden to the state without informing the administration. This puts the state in a quandary regarding space to quarantine the new arrivals. A little attention from the Centre to the welfare of migrant workers would have gone a long way. Not everything is a matter of political showmanship.