Indian Railways has taken anti-COVID-19 measures to the fullest possible extreme. The national railway system, perhaps the lifeblood of Indian existence, will be completely shut down for nine days, till March 31.
The decision was taken during a video conference convened by Railway Board chairman V K Yadav with zonal general managers on March 21. Train travel which involves hundreds grouped together in a relatively small space, is seen as potentially fertile for the virus to multiply and spread.
The general thinking, which the Centre too is said to have endorsed, is that the mass transport system should come to a standstill if the virus has to be prevented from going on a wild rampage.
It has already come to notice that many who had been told to isolate themselves in homes had brushed aside sane advice and had travelled widely in trains. Four passengers in Mumbai-Jabalpur Golden Express and eight in Andhra Sampark Kranti Express had tested positive for COVID-19. It was also revealed that two who were isolated in hospitals had travelled in the Bangalore-Delhi Rajadhani express.
At the Railway Board chairman's video conference, zonal general managers said such irresponsible behaviour was happening despite the best efforts of authorities. If the trains keep running, the infection chain could branch out and explode.
Though trains are being disinfected, and wiped clean more frequently than is usual, the authorities acknowledged that it was virtually impossible to do it after every stop.
Railway stations, too, are a matter of concern. Many passengers have been left stranded in stations far away from their homes after the Indian Railways had to cut short its services in the wake of COVID-19. These people will have to be quickly vacated, and arrangements will have to be made for their return either back to their homes or to the destinations of their choice. This can be done only in a phased manner.
The abrupt cancellation of all services from Sunday is expected to further strand more groups of passengers. Even on the day of 'janata curfew', Indian Railways had operated 400 trains. To lessen the number of stranded passengers, the plan is to allow trains that are already running to reach their intended destinations.
However, further complicating things, states like Jharkhand and West Bengal had already demanded that trains moving towards their borders should be called off. More states are expected to make such a demand.
Railways had been taking emergency measures to avoid crowding in trains. A major decision was taken on March 21 relaxing refund rules for passengers who had booked tickets to travel between March 21 and April 15. The order states if a train is cancelled by Railways for the journey period March 21-April 15, refund across the counter can be taken on submission of the ticket up to 45 days from the date of the journey instead of the present three hours.