Travelling during the pandemic requires strict compliance of hygiene practices at all times since people around might not follow social distancing. The best way to ensure one’s safety is to abide by the safety guidelines issued by the Government of India. This is a travelogue by Utsarga Mondal.
Whenever I travel by train, the explorer in me gets awakened as I look for opportunities to interact with strangers and listen to their unique stories. Last November, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I journeyed from Villupuram to Howrah in TPJ-HWH COVID-19 special train. While travelling, I felt that we had all together overcome the pandemic and that we were back to normalcy like before.
The boarding station at Villupuram, like all other major stations, had a deserted look as only a few special trains were operating throughout the day. The nationwide lockdown had brought Indian Railways, which is the world’s largest rail network and India’s national carrier plying more than 23 million commuters with around 13,523 passenger trains operating daily, to a complete standstill. The railway stations in south India had dedicated security personnel who only permitted ticket holders to access the platform but once the train entered Odisha, I spotted hawkers boarding the train. Onboard, there was no compliance of COVID-19 guidelines, the ticket collector only ensured that passengers with valid reservation tickets found their allocated berths. This time, I was hesitant to talk to passengers because they disregarded the safety guidelines, so I approached one of the staff members of the pantry car to learn about their duty in these unprecedented times.
Alok (name changed) informed me that he remains on duty four days a week because on other days the train goes for regular maintenance before its departure. He is given a salary only on days when the train is running with him being on duty. This amounts to about 10 to 12 thousand rupees a month. But there have been times when he had to pay back to his contractor instead because he was not able to bring back the amount which he should have received from the passengers after having sold a certain quantity of meals during the day. For hawkers, they collect the money immediately after having sold a food item but for passengers who purchase meals from the pantry car, the money is collected only by the evening after dinner. Those who deboard after lunch make the payment beforehand, but there are some passengers who take advantage of the situation and disappear from the train.
The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) has mandated that during this pandemic, only packaged food will be served to passengers to minimize the spread of infection. The food in these boxes comes readymade, only hot water needs to be poured into the container before having it. The hot water is prepared in the pantry car and when a passenger orders a meal, the packaged food is delivered to him. Passengers have given negative feedback and have expressed displeasure given the hospitality onboard because the food is exorbitantly priced anywhere between 120 to 250 rupees and the quantity is not sufficient for a filling. The passengers travelling in this train in sleeper class belong to middle and poor income brackets, the majority of people work as daily wage labourers across various factories and small industries of South India so their financial condition is poor. Apart from the quantity, they have probably never tasted such kind of food.
Due to the persistent requests by the passengers, the catering team have now started preparing rice and other dishes onboard. However, this stands illegal because there is as yet no permit to make food in the pantry car amid the ongoing pandemic. Alok informed me that this decision by the contractor was taken after much consideration because he did not want to hear passengers all the time complaining about packaged food when the pantry car had all the necessary provisions to prepare fresh meals for customers. Now both packaged and hot meals are available onboard.
Before leaving, Alok told me that he has been serving in the pantry car for more than 12 years and can speak around 8 languages. He has travelled all across the country and on premium trains as well. In the coming years, he plans to settle down in his hometown at Naihati and open a food stall. This time when the train reaches Howrah, he will not be returning for a week because it’s his daughter’s birthday so he plans to spend time with his family.
During the entire journey, availing safe drinking water at the platforms was a major challenge for the travellers. The vending machines were not operational, so passengers had no other option than to fill their bottles from the taps at major stations because not everyone was willing to spend money on purchasing water bottles.
Secondly, most food stores at the stations remained closed which meant that there was an increasing rush in the available stalls. Thirdly, the number of passengers in a given coach exceeded the availability of seats.
Fourthly, the fare in special trains is about 200 rupees more than the trains running in the same route. Special trains are common during festive seasons as there is a surge in demand from passengers to travel. However, keeping the ticket fare as high as during the festive season at the time of an ongoing pandemic, especially when many people from middle and poor households have lost their jobs is rather bizarre. And lastly, there is no routine maintenance of hygiene in the train. Only at major stations are the washrooms cleaned and the water filled in the coaches.
My expectations were very different before boarding the train, I was under the impression that the number of passengers would be limited to the available number of seats in every coach and that regular monitoring of social distancing and hygiene-related practices would be enforced by the onboard housekeeping staff of the Indian Railway all throughout the journey.
The experience of travelling in a COVID-19 special train during the pandemic was quite surreal given the deserted platforms at major railway junctions and the train arriving well before its scheduled time to all its destinations.
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