Times Of India Editorials : Misery on wheels

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With public transport in stasis, both jobs and the migrants chasing them are bogged down

Bus services have resumed in many parts of the country with limits of 20 passengers at a time. Transportation is the lifeline of the economy. But deciding the modalities (modal quality) of restoring public transport is proving to be a difficult aspect of exiting the lockdown for authorities. Many cities and border areas are continuing to witness large congregations of migrant workers, undermining physical distancing norms and throwing public order into disarray (disorder). Unsafe travel on foot and heavy vehicles is still being undertaken.

Millions of Indians are dependent on public transport for commuting to workplaces and travelling to hometowns and villages. As the economy takes longer to reopen, it follows that many people out of jobs want to return to the social security accorded by native places. The demand for inter-state transport stems from this cold economic logic, where survival (the state or fact of continuing to live or exist, typically in spite of an accident, ordeal, or difficult circumstances) takes precedence over the virus. In this scenario, the Centre with its command over the railway network can ease bottlenecks in inter-state transport erected by state governments.

The shramik special trains may help receiving states mount greater vigil on incoming migrants but the rationing isn’t helping in social distancing or allaying migrant worker concerns. Their fear of not seeing home and worries about regaining livelihoods point to the immensity of the shock induced by successive lockdowns and lack of confidence in official assurances. Restoring public transport, including air travel and metro trains, to pre-Covid frequencies will reassure all citizens and produce a measure of social distancing with many now avoiding non-essential travel.

Metro systems in big cities like New York, London, Barcelona, Seoul and Beijing have remained open through the Covid crisis although ridership has plummeted (plunge). Indian authorities have in contrast employed blanket restrictions instead of targeted interventions. As cases spike, states are leaning towards tightening borders, serving little purpose other than aggravating migrant distress and delaying economic revival. The Delhi-NCR belt spanning cities like Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, Ghaziabad and Faridabad across three states is in reality a seamless economic zone. But border passes are the new reality. Karnataka’s ban on people entering from Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Gujarat or Telangana’s unofficial curbs on similar lines reveal how states will pursue their own lockdown versions in coming days. The lockdown wasn’t meant to rob people of their dignity or turn borders into chokepoints. Mandate masks and social distancing, and keep moving.

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