States seem to be scrambling to put in place a policy to deal with incoming travelers from COVID-19 affected red zone states after the Indian Railways unexpectedly announced that it was restarting some long distance trains from tomorrow.
Most states currently limit interstate travel by issuing special passes, so that the number of incoming travelers remains manageable and they can all be checked for symptoms and quarantined if necessary.
These states, especially those less affected, have set up a system of issuing passes for incoming travelers through special websites set up for the purpose.
Kerala, for example, has set up the ‘Jagrata’ portal, while Karnataka has its ‘Seva Sindhu’ portal.
On the other hand, states like Goa has asked the government to block long-distance, inter-state travel for some weeks, until Coronavirus is brought under control.
Kerala, Karnataka and other states also follow a policy of putting these incoming travelers into government-controlled quarantine facilities, and also block all visitors without passes at the state border.
However, once these long-distance trains start running, passless travelers cannot be blocked at the border, as these train will not stop at the border for checking. Instead, they will deliver passengers to various railway stations on the route.
This threatens to upend the system currently in place, with potential to leak infected passengers through various railway stations.
Most railway stations in India are highly porous, and it is not always possible to prevent people from leaving the railway station by checking or blocking the main gate.
People can, and often do, leave the station via the railway tracks.
Karnataka has been the quickest to announce a response to the Center’s decision to restart railway services.
Direct General of Police for Karnataka, Praveen Sood, has announced that incoming travelers need to get passes and be ready for being quarantined if they are coming from a hotspot.
“Inter state returnees from Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Tamilnadu will have to undergo 14 days institutional quarantine. Passes are issued only through govt portal seva sindhu.
“Travel only if it is absolutely essential. Be prepared for quarantine even if asypmtomatic,” he said.
“You are going to be quarantined after crossing border. Follow lockdown guidelines,” he added.
However, it remains to be seen how practical the directions are, given that the Indian Railways has not said that it will check for such passes when passengers are admitted into railway stations for onboarding.
It is possible that the Indian Railways may put in such a policy if chief ministers raise concerns at their online meeting with the prime minister today.
Indian Railways said in a press release late yesterday night that it was restarting services to and from 15 major cities in India and the national capital.
These trains will halt at only the most important stations. The train to Thiruvananthapuram, for example, will stop at Kota, Vadodara, Panvel, Madgaon, Mangalore, Kozhikode and Kochi.
The fifteen cities are Howrah, Patna, Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram, Madgaon, Ahmedabad, Jammu Tawi, Bilaspur, Ranchi, Bhubaneswar, Agartala and Dibrugarh.
Booking will start at 4 PM today on the IRCTC website.
Passengers need to wear facemasks, it said, adding that more trains will be restarted in coming days.