Shramik Specials: ‘When the train left, we broke into an applause… It was spontaneous’

Sometime in the end of April, a month after the sudden nationwide lockdown was announced, triggering the migrant exodus, a plan was formed.

4,621 trips, carrying 63 lakh people home. If the migrant distress was one of the lowest points of the Covid pandemic, the monumental exercise by the Railways in easing some of it remains one of the highest. The operations came at a cost, with 40,000-odd Railway employees testing positive, and nearly 700 dying. However, in an year when its operations came to a complete halt for the first time, India’s national transporter could pride itself on having stepped up to the plate when duty called.

Sometime in the end of April, a month after the sudden nationwide lockdown was announced, triggering the migrant exodus, a plan was formed. Officials first contacted district administrations in Telangana to enlist labourers in relief camps as per their home states and villages. Accounting for safe distancing norms, 1,200 were picked, bound for Jharkhand. In the dead of night on May 1, to ensure no sudden rush, buses carried them to the Lingampalli Railway Station from various places. Before dawn, at around 5 am, the first train was quietly flagged off for Hatia near Ranchi.

“On paper we had prepared a protocol in consultation with the Health Ministry. But we had never done this before and the only way to see if it worked was to actually do it on the ground,” recalls Gajanan Mallya, General Manager of Secundrabad-based South Central Railway. “The planning had been happening for 10-15 days. But we did not make it public until the first train left. We couldn’t risk a large number of people thronging the stations.”

Recalls Mallya, “When the train departed, station staff clapped and gave a happy sendoff to the migrants. That was spontaneous.”

As the train reached Hatia a day later, passengers were screened on arrival for symptoms, and with the help of the state government, put on 60 sanitised buses as per their destinations.

The Shramik Special, a new model for transporting humans in distress, was born.

Eventually, a total of 4,621 such trips were undertaken between May and August, taking stranded migrants back to 23 states, from Tripura to Gujarat and from Tamil Nadu to Uttar Pradesh. There were problems, of trains running late, even “losing way” en route, trains running out of food and water, and deaths due to the peak summer heat. As many as 97 migrants died on board the Shramik Specials.

Nelson Moses, Chief Ticket Inspector in the Mumbai Division of Western Railway, which dispatched the highest number of Shramik trains, mostly from Mumbai and Surat, says, “Around 125 of our ticket checking staff got infected. We lost some too.”

Vivek Kamble, a technician in a depot in Mumbai which prepared the Shramik Special rakes, says, “One colleague, who was working as a carpenter, was just 43. But the work kept getting done. We were working 24 hours a day.”

Prashant Kamade, Senior Section Engineer of Mumbai Division of Western Railway, says bringing the staff from far-off places to work was itself a challenge. “Private housing societies started objecting… They feared that we would bring the disease back home.”

Dhananjayan PA, Chief Public Relations Officer of Chennai-based Southern Railway, was among those who worked through their illness, from home. “I told myself that if I do not keep working, then sitting at home doing nothing would be too much on the mind,” he says, adding that at one point, almost 70 people from the Chennai Division were Covid positive.

Along with this, the freight trains kept moving like clockwork, carrying foodgrains and coal to power plants, and the Railways turned coaches into isolation units to receive Covid patients. Homeopathic and Ayurvedic immunity boosters were home-delivered to staff, to keep the operations running.

On Tuesday, as he inaugurated a section of the Dedicated Freight Corridor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged the Railway effort during Covid, from transporting migrants to delivering medicines. “The whole country will remember this service of Railway employees,” he said.

Read more from The Indian Express series, ‘Silver Lining: A Yearbook’

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