WHEN THE SUBURBAN locals start early November, as the Maharashtra government has signalled, it will mark the true end of the lockdown in Mumbai. The city will be fully open for business and, as the commercial heart of India, it should be good news for the rest of the country too. Yet, you can predict that it will be a messy convoluted process.
Media reports cite a letter sent to the Centre from the state on the modalities of how the locals will function. It is a study on the bureaucratic brain that, in the absence of a solution, seeks solace in complexity. According to a Mumbai Mirror report: ‘Now, in order to make the services available to everyone, the state government has proposed a slot in which the general public will be allowed to travel, adhering to COVID-19 protocols…The government has suggested that any person with a valid ticket or pass should be allowed to travel from the first local in the morning till 7:30 am, then from 11 am to 4:30 pm, and from 8 pm till the last local train. Those in essential services with valid QR code or ID card along with a valid ticket or pass shall be allowed to travel from 8 am to 10:30 am and from 5 pm to 7:30 pm. The government has also suggested that there should be a special ladies’ special train every hour.’
How will anyone monitor these lakhs of commuters by profession? Obviously, no one can. The idea is to spread the crowd across the day to outwit the virus. No one in his right mind can believe that, even if, all commuters being honest and sticking to the rules, they can maintain a six feet distance. For decades now, Mumbai locals have been torture for all those who take it because of the unimaginable crowding. It was an intractable problem. How does anyone now expect a few lines in a regulation to fix it overnight? To make peak hours into non-peak hours is to ignore why the crowd peaks at all; the entire ecosystem of work and life, from household duties to family and office management, that underpins it. Start to add clause after clause, zones after zones for categories of commuters, and in theory, there will be a perfect universe but in practice, nothing but chaos can ensue. This was as it was when buses started taking commuters, and soon there were queues that stretched unendingly in depots, and social distancing went for a toss.
Resumption of local train travel will lead to a spike in Covid cases but there is really no alternative. The only course of action is to bear it and, like earlier spikes, hope that it tapers down quickly. Should the government panic and go flailing around with new rules and gradations, then the inevitable will drag on.
Mumbai cannot function without local trains and that is the stark reality. Herd immunity might be a morally wrong policy to follow but if it is arrived at by default through local trains, then seven months after a lockdown, it is still better than the ongoing destruction of livelihoods.