Mumbai, March 22 : For the first time in 46 years, the sprawling Indian Railway network, including Mumbai’s lifeline — the suburban trains which ferry around 8.5 million commuters daily — will completely shut down till March 31 for all passengers to avoid the spread of coronavirus.
Though Mumbai witnesses partial or near-total disruptions in suburban trains during monsoons, or the occasional ‘bandhs’, or terror strikes, this is the first time that the government has intervened to close all passenger train services, local or long-distance, barring freight trains, with possibly serious repercussions for the national economy as a whole.
The Centre’s move came even as the Maharashtra government was toying with the idea of shutting down (only) suburban trains since the past fortnight as one of the options to keep crowds off the roads, but didn’t take the courage to bite the bullet.
Way back in May 1974, socialist leader and later Union Minister George Fernandes had challenged the might of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by spearheading a 20-day-long crippling all-India railway strike.
After Fernandes’ strike — billed as the world’s biggest ever labour action — no natural or man-made calamities could ever succeed in stopping the railway networks, and trains continued to chug along the country’s veritable lifelines.
For the coronavirus-gripped country’s commercial capital, the ramifications of local trains’ shutdown are starkly different, as they are intricately interlinked with the country’s economy and prosperity, so it is said that “when Mumbai sneezes, the entire country catches a flu”.
“Mumbai alone contributes around 35 per cent income taxes, nearly two-third of indirect taxes revenue to the national exchequer, accounts for more than 40 per cent of all foreign trade” and overall coughs up around 7 per cent to the country’s GDP. The impact of closure of IR networks can be imagined with long term impact,” a worried Bohra Group Chairman Pratap Bohra told IANS.
The Central Railway (CR) and Western Railway (WR) suburban locals serve Mumbai, Mumbai Suburban District, Thane, Raigad and Palghar districts ferrying over 8.50 million commuters to and from their homes-workplaces in the country’s commercial capital.
It also contributes to a mind-boggling network of public bus services, autorickshaws, taxis, aggregator cabs, providing gainful employment to another half a million people, and helps flourish every business that Mumbai boasts — from the scrap business to restaurants and stocks to diamonds.
“The gold, jewellery and diamond industry will be badly hit as most polishers and craftsmen solely depend on public transport,” a prominent diamond merchant A. Shah told IANS.
As an additional precaution, prominent Nagpur lawyer Vinod Tiwari on Sunday wrote to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray demanding that all religious places like temples, mosques, churches, gurudwaras, derasars, fire-temples, bhikshu-sthals, samadhis and mausoleums must be sealed for two weeks.
“Despite repeated appeals, many have blatantly flouted norms and continue to remain partially open, leading to overcrowding and threats of the coronavirus spreading from such religious congregations,” Tiwari told IANS.
“Even the financial markets will be hugely hit… Many brokers and sub-brokers have decided to shift their BSE-NSE terminals at home after the exchanges permitted it,” a financial consultant Rajesh Shah told IANS.
With the trains closing down for 10 days, every other business will be paralysed and the government would practically achieve its aim of mooring people at their homes, reinforced with the imposition of prohibitory orders statewide from midnight (March 22-23).
However, some like activist Jatin Desai raise doubts over how the government will tackle people facing non-coronavirus related medical emergency in the total absence of public transport.
“India doesn’t enjoy the kind of medical services in the US or UK… There should be plan to promptly rush medicare if someone suffers a heart attack, or for expectant mothers, or kids with medical emergencies. There should be at least need-based skeletal services made available to people,” Desai told IANS.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at: [email protected])