The Indian Railways and Covid – Part I

It is the largest employer in India and eighth largest in the world. It is also the fourth longest railway network in the world sprawling out to a total length of 70,000 kms. It runs 21,000 trains and carries 23 million passengers and 3 million tonnes of freight per day. What was the multi-faceted impact of the Covid pandemic on such a behemoth? In this series of articles Covid Response watch looks at how the Indian Railways dealt with the Covid pandemic and what it meant for its own future, its employees and passengers.

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Part One: After initial quick response to Covid Indian Railways  fell victim to neo-liberal lobby


The Indian Railway colossus came to a grinding halt on 22 March 2020, even a couple of days before the Modi Government declared a total lockdown on 24 March 2020. For the first time in history, it did not operate normal train services for 3 months. The only exceptions were the 230 special trains operated from 1 June 2020.

As the lockdown was lifted in a phased manner, the train services were also revived in a staggered manner. 12.54 lakh employees fought the Coronavirus bravely to put Railways back on the wheels. Until 29 July 2021, 2903 railway employees laid down their precious lives in this battle as per a statement made in the parliament. They sacrificed their lives to put the economy and the social life in India back on the rails.

Quick response

COVID Response Watch LogoIndian Railways was quick to respond to the Covid-19 situation. Even the WHO declared the Covid-19 outbreak as a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ on 30 January 2020. It was declared a pandemic on 11 March 2020. The Indian Government invoked the Disaster Management Act on 24 March 2020 and declared a total lock down. But Indian Railways sounded out an alert on 28 January 2020 itself. The Railway Board, through it member and Executive Director (Health) Dr.K.Sridhar, issued a circular stressing that, “preventive action to contain spread of Corona cases was the need of the day”. The circular called upon all  those in charge of railway zones to “immediately get in touch with the concerned state governments to obtain the guidelines to take necessary action for detection, prevention and cure”.

The Railway Board followed it up with another circular on 4 March 2020 and issued instructions for setting up separate isolation wards for Covid patients in all railway hospitals and directed that all medical personnel be issued proper protective gear. On 5 March 2020, a control room was established in Delhi to coordinate all Covid-related activities within the Railways at the all-India level.

On 6 March 2020 itself another directive was issued to sanitize “all areas of interface with the public in coaches and stations such as entrance handrails, door handles, toilet door handles and latches, toilet faucets and water taps etc.” The same day a video conference was held with all general managers and other senior zonal officials to finalize actionable points. These included earmarking of 20% of the railway hospital beds for Covid patients, establishment of helpline numbers for both employees and general passengers and a WhatsApp group called ‘Covid 19 Railways’ was launched to disseminate the information related to Covid-19 measures taken by the Railways widely.

On 9 March, another circular asked the station authorities to ensure availability of liquid soap and running water in trains. On 17 March, all employees with cough or runny nose were barred from catering services and thermal screening of all those entering railway premises was made mandatory. So, even before the Union government declared a total lockdown, the Railways had geared up with all these measures to contain Covid-19 within its own ambit.

Neoliberal push

The pandemic wreaked havoc with the revenues of Indian Railways, which turned into a convenient excuse for the Modi Government and the Indian Railways management to fast forward neoliberal reforms—by increasing passenger and freight fares, curtailing facilities for workers and passengers, including the vital safety measures, and speeding up railway privatization.

On 19 March 2020 itself, all fare concessions announced for all categories of passengers like senior citizens and tourist groups etc., were withdrawn except in the case of handicapped passengers. On 19 March 2020, the Railway Board issued a circular directing zonal officials to rope in civil society and community outfits in pandemic management but this was not done. On 20 March 2020, sanitization of compartments was stressed only in those cases where a Covid-19 case had been detected. On 22 March 2020, all passenger train services—including all mail and express trains, all suburban locals and metros and inter-city trains—were cancelled. The production units of railways were also closed. But freight trains were allowed to operate as usual. This means the Railways had gone for a partial “shut down” even 48 hours before Modi surprised the nation with a total lockdown.

The administrative offices were however asked to function with only skeletal staff and administrative employees were allowed to work from home. For the shut down period, the Railway Board decided to pay the workers of all private contractors executing railway work, but the officials, in their characteristic bureaucratic style, paid the amount to the contractors instead of directly to the workers and didn’t bother to verify whether the wages paid for the period of suspension of trains reached the contract labourers. On 24 March 2020, a decision was taken to manufacture personal protection equipment (PPEs) to be used by the railway employees in the railway facilities themselves but zonal officials continued to purchase them from private suppliers.

Pandemic an excuse to loot passengers

And, on 24 March 2020, the most controversial decision to increase the passenger fare for short distance travel was taken, with the specious logic that the measure would discourage unnecessary travel. Elangovan Ramalingam, a veteran railway trade union leader of CITU background told Covid Response Watch that the fares for special trains were increased by 30%. 200 passenger trains used by the poor were re-labeled as express trains and the increased express fares were collected for them also.

If travel is against public security during the pandemic, it is for the government to decide to restrict or even ban travel. Who are the railway bureaucrats to decide whether citizens can travel or not? Or, worse still, to allow them to travel only after grabbing extra money from them? Citing similar reasons, later the Railways hiked platform tickets too from Rs.10 to Rs.50. Initially, increased fare was extracted from the starving and stranded migrant workers also in Shramik Specials.  After a huge media and public outrage, the State governments came forward to reimburse the cost to the Railways and they were transported to their destinations sans food or any other facility en route.

TTEs (Travel Ticket Examiners), station masters, the staff under train examiners and station masters, loco pilots and technicians, GRP (Railways police) and other station security guards, porters, contract workers cleaning trains, toilets and stations, railway hospital doctors, nurses and other paramedics, guards, ticket counter employees, and parcel office workers etc., were highly likely to come into contact with the public during their duty. Utmost care was needed for those workers who take care of travel requirements of the public. But the Railway Board failed on this count.

Shramik Specials were operated from 1 May 2020 by 28 May 3736 Shramik trains had ferried lakhs of stranded migrants home. The special trains were also operated from 1 April 2020. Goods trains were running without any break. Once the lockdown was lifted, normal operation of trains gradually resumed. To help the government overcome the oxygen crisis, the Railways also operated ‘Oxygen Express”, from various oxygen supply points to areas of dire need. It played no mean role in easing the oxygen crisis and saving numerous lives. And railway coaches were converted into Covid Care Centres, especially in many remote areas. If India experienced no serious supply disruption due to Covid-19 and the industries that revived production also faced no supply-chain disruption, the credit should mainly go to the freight train workers.

Railway workers get a raw deal

All these were made possible by the selfless service of railway employees. But no extra facilities were provided for them for reporting for work under extremely risky conditions. Railways did free tests for them and carried out vaccinations at the cost of Railways. But the PPEs provided were not up to the standards recommended by the WHO or the ICMR. For instance, a loco running staff member in Chennai told Covid Response Watch that loco pilots in Chennai were provided only 5 N95 masks, 10 cloth masks, one set of hand gloves, and 2 bottles sanitizer liquid for the entire pandemic period in two installments. TTEs and other running staff were not given these except for masks once in the beginning. Due to the lockdown, food, water and other essential items like medicines were not available to the employees at the stations. Railway hospitals are located at the divisional or at the most at sub-divisional levels and though reimbursement was promised to the workers in small towns and villages taking treatment in private health centres, it was limited only to OPD care and not for hospitalization, even in Covid-19 cases.

The Covid-19 employees were allowed to take leave but from their own quota and if they had exhausted the number of days of leave entitled to them their pay was cut. The Railways always claimed they were doing public service. But Railway workers were not recognized as Covid-19 frontline workers, except in the case of railway hospital workers. So, if they died contracting Covid-19 while on duty, their families were not given the Rs.50 lakh ex-gratia, which was given to the next of the kin of other frontline workers who died.

Travel passes were not issued to the Railway employees immediately after the lockdown was imposed and they were asked to manage their own transportation to commute to work. So, in the early days of the lockdown, the Railway employees faced lots of police harassment. In some cities, even two-wheelers were not allowed to ply. While on duty, in the destination stations, the running staff had to stay in the usual ‘running rooms’ only.

The Railways employees were not given any additional incentive for doing duty in unsafe conditions but had to suffer a DA freeze from January 2020 under the pretext of pandemic stress on national revenues.

For passengers, security remained a continuing concern. Initially, it was said that social distancing would be maintained even within the compartments and alternate seats would remain empty. But later, all seats were allowed to be occupied. Number of passengers was regulated even at the time of booking the tickets. Other passengers were not allowed entry into the stations. But unreserved compartments were abolished under the pretext of possible overcrowding!

Thanks to the lockdown, many services in the stations like cloak room, waiting room, and dormitory services took a hit, and passengers were deprived of railway canteens, medical stores and other shops, and often the porter and hawker services were also in short supply thanks to Covid-triggered labour shortage. The pandemic spurred privatization in railways and often it took the form of outsourcing work to contractors and the cleaning of stations, platforms, and trains was increasingly privatized. Contract labour replaced regular employees increasingly in track laying work and even in repair work.

A crisis like the Covid pandemic would naturally pinch the finances of the Indian Railways. The dedicated freight corridor project, the Rs. 81,000 crore big ticket investment project of the Railways, could not be completed by December 2021 as targeted for want of funds. However, Prime Minister Modi’s pet project, the bullet train, was not cancelled but only rescheduled to 2026. The pandemic also put paid to the big-ticket privatization project of running 100 private trains. The Tejas Express trains running between Lucknow and Delhi and Ahmedabad and Delhi had to be scrapped as there were not many takers for them among the passengers given their high cost, almost matching air fares. Even then, the Modi Government did not abandon its Railways privatization dreams. The drive for privatization continued in several other spheres and we shall review them in a sequel to this article.

B. Sivaraman is a researcher based in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh

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