The Railways on Friday rolled out non-stop "Shramik Special" trains to ferry migrant workers, students and others from various states where they were stranded since the nationwide lockdown began on March 25.
In a meticulous pre-dawn operation that coincided with the International Labour Day and planned in virtual secrecy, the first train with 1,200 migrant workers departed from Hyderabad in Telangana to Hatia in Jharkhand at 4:50 am.
The other five train services are from Aluva (Kerala) to Bhubaneswar (Odisha), Nashik (Maharashtra) to Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh), Nashik to Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh), Jaipur (Rajasthan) to Patna (Bihar) and Kota (Rajasthan) to Hatia, which is in the outskirts of Ranchi city.
The migrant workers from Sangareddy district, about 50 km from Hyderabad, were brought to the city in buses and allowed to board the 24-coach train after following strict health protocols.
Some of the workers were working at IIT, Hyderabad, with the campus at Sangareddy, which witnessed protests by construction labourers, allegedly denied payment. They indulged in
stone pelting and also demanded they be sent back home.
The discreet operation came against the backdrop of the incident in Bandra in suburban Mumbai when thousands of migrant workers reached the railway station on April 14 following social media buzz on resumption of train services that triggered a near stampede and breakdown of law and order.
After more than a month of suspension of passenger services, the Railways announced the special trains for stranded migrant workers, students and others amid indications by officials that more such services are being planned in the coming days with the 40-day lockdown due to end on May 3 being extended for another two weeks.
The train services followed demands from multiple states who felt it will be a logistical nightmare to transport lakhs of migrants back to their home towns in buses which was envisaged in the April 29 guidelines of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The Railways will charge the state governments for ferrying the stranded people, an official order said, adding the fare would include cost of sleeper class ticket, superfast charge of Rs 30 and Rs 20 for meals and water per passenger.
Over 5,000 migrant labourers returned to Uttar Pradesh from Madhya Pradesh in 155 buses and their medical check-ups were being conducted, UP's Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Awanish Kumar Awasthi said in Lucknow.
He said 5,259 labourers from MP arrived in the state and 1,341 labourers belonging to that state were sent to their native places in 50 buses.
Awasthi said 6,500 migrant labourers from Rajasthan and 1,500 from Uttarakhand will be returning to UP on Saturday.
Nearly 1,700 students returned to West Bengal from Rajasthan's Kota -- the coaching hub for engineering and medical aspirants -- and have been put up at different camps for health check-ups, an official said in Kolkata.
According to Trinamool Congress leader and Asansol Mayor Jitendra Tiwari, the students, following their arrival in the town, were provided refreshments and taken to health camps, here they would have to undergo precautionary medical check-up.
"The buses carrying students (from Kota) are coming to Asansol. The students are then being taken to health camps for a check-up. We have arranged for 135 buses, which would ferry the students to their respective homes, following completion of necessary formalities," Tiwari said.
The Railways said as per the guidelines issued by the MHA the 'Shramik Special' trains will be operated from point to point on the request of both the state governments concerned as per the standard protocols for sending and receiving such stranded persons.
"The railways and state governments shall appoint senior officials," it said in a statement.
Announcements, officials said are not being made in advance to ensure there is no overcrowding at stations leading to a panic situation and only those stranded will be allowed to board the train and who have registered with state authorities.
Officials in Kota in Rajasthan have issued instructions, saying students need to carry identity cards. Seats will be allotted on a first-come-first-serve basis and a message from the district magistrate allowing travel will be considered as a valid ticket, they said. Each train is likely to carry around 1,000-1,200 passengers, keeping in mind the social-distancing protocol.
Students from all 24 districts of Jharkhand, who were stranded in Rajasthan, will be accommodated in two special trains leaving Kota and Jaipur.
A district-wise seating arrangement has been made with adequate social distancing.
According to the guidelines issued by the railways, the passengers of the special trains will have to be screened at the boarding points by the states sending them and only those found asymptomatic of COVID-19 will be allowed to travel.
"Sending state governments will have to bring these persons in batches that can be accommodated in the trains to the designated railway stations in sanitised buses, following social-distancing norms and other precautions. It will be mandatory for every passenger to wear a face cover. Meals and drinking water would be provided to the passengers by the sending states at the originating stations.
"Railways will endeavour to ensure social-distancing norms and hygiene with the cooperation of passengers. On longer routes, the railways will provide a meal during the journey," the national transporter said.
On arrival at the destination, the passengers are to be received by the state government, which will make all arrangements for their screening, quarantine, if necessary, and further travel from the railway station, it added.
A spokesperson for the South Central Railway which operated the morning Jharkhand bound train service said all passengers underwent thermal screening at the station, masks made mandatory and food provided on board as the train will have no halts.
For social distancing measures, it has allowed only 54 passengers per coach which has a capacity of 72. In coupes, six passengers have been allowed instead of eight, the spokesperson said, which is the likely protocol which will be followed for all such special trains.
It was reported earlier that each railway zone had a "restoration plan" in place to ferry stranded migrants across the country to their destinations. Resumption of normal services, however, will not take place anytime soon, officials said.
Following information about the special train from Aluva in Kerala, a large number of migrant workers, including women, thronged registration counters set up by the state government at nearby Perumbavoor, where majority of the labourers in the Ernakulam district are housed in camps.
Announcements were being made through public address system in various native languages of the workers, including Bengali, Odiya and Hindi, on the process, including social distancing, to be followed for the journey. modalities were being worked out.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren said the government, if necessary, would help migrant workers even fly back home.
A day after giving the nod for their one-time movement towards their destination, Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa appealed to migrant workers to stay back in the state and co-operate with the government to resume economic activities.