The Centre’s move to run 15 pairs of trains between New Delhi and major cities will serve as a trial for further relaxation of lockdown travel restrictions. The new trains are a lifeline for stranded citizens, although the scheme has been designed as a limited air-conditioned service for higher fare paying travellers. Thousands of migrant workers will continue to look for Shramik Special trains to get home. There are multiple challenges to operating trains when the transmission of the novel coronavirus is rising. Many States have severely restricted the arrival of domestic travellers, but their attempts at regulating entry by road through passes issued online have been overwhelmed, and the pass system is becoming dysfunctional; quarantine facilities have come under strain and cases of expatriates testing positive, as in Kerala, have added to their worries. Telangana and at least three other States do not favour resumption of passenger trains. Karnataka wants a compulsory 14-day institutional quarantine for travellers. While this underscores the high degree of caution that many States want to adopt, it severely restricts inter-State movement. Kerala, more reasonably, is asking those coming from other States by road, with permission, to home quarantine themselves, after initially considering institutional monitoring. The Centre has left such dilemmas to be resolved by the States, and the Home Ministry’s Standard Operating Protocol for the relief train services merely orders passengers to adhere to health protocols prescribed by the destination State or Union Territory.
As India moves into the last week of the extended lockdown, it is important for States to agree on a standard protocol on how to deal with travellers, whose numbers are bound to grow. Experience in the U.S., Europe and Asia shows that with the relaxation of lockdown curbs, many tend to lower their guard. India’s peculiar circumstances, including the difficulty of maintaining physical distancing and low compliance with rules, could increase infections rapidly. Yet, a system for orderly movement is necessary to relieve the social and economic pressures since the national lockdown began. Trains and buses are the most affordable ways for those stranded to return home, and such travel can be facilitated with a safety protocol in place: physical distancing, use of masks and hand washing. Citizens can be persuaded to comply with this if governments have clarity on how they will facilitate train and road travel. At the destination, unless medically warranted, passengers can self-quarantine at home. This is something that the Centre has prescribed even for very mild, pre-symptomatic patients. A patchwork of rules and regulations among States will only confuse travellers and generate needless anxiety.