The Maharashtra government on Friday told the Bombay high court that it does not have any objection now to increase the frequency of local trains in Mumbai and said the services may be used by the general public provided they wear masks and follow social distancing norms.
Presently only persons working in essential services are permitted to use the local trains that are running in limited numbers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni on Friday told a division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice G S Kulkarni that the state government has no objection if the frequency of the trains is increased and if the same is open to everyone, including those in non-essential services.
"The state has no objection now. But people are not wearing masks and do not maintain social distancing. It is almost like people would rather wear an oxygen mask in the ICU bed of a hospital than a face mask covering their nose and mouth," Kumbhakoni told the court.
"Coronavirus has not booked a return ticket. It is here to stay. Hence people need to be careful," Kumbhakoni said and gave example of late singer S P Balasubrahmanyam, who was infected with COVID-19 'because of a mistake of sharing a mike with another person'.
The bench had earlier this week noted that the railway services need to correspond with the partial opening of the lockdown.
It has also suggested the state government to request the Railways to increase the frequency of trains run everyday on Central, Harbour and Western lines.
Kumbhakoni told the court on Friday that the government has already written to the Railways seeking that the frequency of locals be increased.
The same was forwarded to the Railways Board which has approved the proposal, he said.
He further told the court that presently the number of COVID-19 positive cases was steady and hence one by one the government has been permitting opening of sectors.
The bench then said that with each sector opening, the demand to use local trains increases and hence the state government and the Railways need to assess this demand and increase the frequency.
"It is the state government's duty to enforce the guidelines of safety norms and social distancing rules. In the month of March, coronavirus was unknown to us. But now more than six months have passed and hence we know more about the virus," Chief Justice Datta said.
"Media reports say that a second wave is expected in the months of December and January. We need to be prepared for the future," he said.
The court referred to the incident of West Bengal, where the entire state was facing constant power cuts in the 1970s.
"People and households then decided to shut their electricity each night from 10 pm to 2 am," Chief Justice Datta said.
"Survival is of utmost importance. Something needs to be done to ensure that everyone does not end up at the railway station at the same time," he added while suggesting staggered office timings to decrease peak hour rush in trains.
"For this, involvement of ministers is required. It cannot be done by just officers. We need to take a holistic approach," the court said.
The bench was hearing a bunch of petitions seeking a direction to the Maharashtra government to include lawyers and their staff in essential services so that they can use the local trains to attend physical court hearings and their offices.
The bench has posted the matter for further hearing on October 19.