WATCH: Sukanya’s coverage of the situation in the Jammu quarantine centre:
I have been working as a reporter and video producer in New Delhi for the past two years. My family hails from Srinagar, but after the mass migration of Kashmiri Pandits took place during 1989-90, they resettled in Jammu. My dad, who is a painter, had come to visit me on 18th March for a couple of days. As it happened, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he ended up getting stuck with me for more than two months in a single room rented apartment in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi. Back then, we didn’t realise that it would take us two months to go back home and be with our family again. Every passing day felt like an eternity, hoping for the lockdown to get lifted.
The moment it was announced that bookings for special trains shall start on the 12th May, we started receiving calls from dozens of relatives suggesting that my dad should book his ticket and leave immediately before the train services stop and the chaos kicks in like before. Since my father is a deaf person, the thought of sending him alone amidst this crisis made me worried because of the numerous protocols that would be in place before he could reach home. Therefore, I decided to tag along with him.
News about migrant workers travelling on foot desperately to reach their homes would fill my feed every day, but in all honesty, we were unable to truly understand their plight/agony till the time we reached New Delhi Station. On the day of our travel, my inbox was bombarded by instructions from IRCTC like: “Reach 90 minutes before the departure of the train, fill the form mentioning your personal details, everyone will have to undergo thermal screening and only asymptomatic persons will be allowed to board the train, carry light luggage and download Aarogya Setu app.”
The messages also carried a warning that anyone who failed to follow the instructions would not be allowed to board the train. These messages made me assume that there would be many cautionary measures put in place and hence, I reached 3 hours before the scheduled time. In fact, I arranged PPE kits for my father and myself a day prior to our journey, making sure we had our precautions in tow.
Because the lockdown was still in force, taxi prices were sky-high. For a distance of 20km, taxi drivers were charging 5000 rupees. My brother in-law turned out to be a saviour as he sent his car with a driver to drop us till the station. The entry of passengers from Ajmeri gate was restricted and, so we took the entry route from the Paharganj side. Our car was stopped at a police check post, positioned a couple of kilometres away from the entrance of the railway station. The police officers denied us the entry with our car and asked us to walk instead. In my defence, I showed the police officer my press card. The man in the uniform politely said, “Ma’am, you are entering the station as a passenger and not as a journalist and hence, it would be appreciable if you follow the rules just like other passengers, because they have been put in place for your safety. Otherwise, we will be the target in the headlines the next day.” His sarcasm hit me hard, so I avoided indulging in an avoidable argument.
From this checkpoint, my dad and I started walking towards the station and reached within five minutes. The departure time of our train was at 9.10 PM from platform no. 3 and as per the guidelines we were supposed to enter the station 90 minutes before, but as I mentioned previously, I didn’t want to be caught inside chaos and hence had reached the station 3 hours before. Within the first five minutes of entering the station though, the situation in front of my eyes left me utterly disappointed. I had made a fool out of myself by following each and every instruction sent by the IRCTC.
The only time I saw police officers inside the railway premises was at the entrance, where the baggage screening machine was installed. The moment our bags were scanned, and we entered the station, it felt like a stroll in a park. I was flabbergasted to see that not even one health or nodal officer had been appointed. No thermal screenings of any individuals took place while entering the station. There was a lady officer with an infrared thermometer in her hand, sitting cosily in her chair. The sight of her body language during a crisis like this speaks a thousand words about our rotten system.
Next, a police officer stopped me at the entrance of the station and asked me the price of my PPE kit and also where he could buy it from. I was wondering if he was joking but that’s the case, we are in shortage of supplying protective equipment to the personnel who are at the frontline of this war against COVID-19.
To top it off, there was no concept of social distancing at all. Passengers were carrying baggage that is twice as usual, as if it was going to be the last travel of their lifetime. After seeing two boys smoking at the platform, my father also joined them and smoked heartily. I admit that the citizen has a responsibility towards the state, but considering our country has a huge number of people who like to break the laws, the state needs to enforce the law with an iron hand. Perhaps that is what I was eager to see at the New Delhi Railway Station.
I sat inside the train all furious and started wondering why the other passengers didn’t feel the same level of discomfort that I did. Perhaps, it was the joy of being able to return to their homes for most of them or they had already given up the faith in the system. Finally, the train left the station and while I was having my favourite hide and seek biscuits, a rat stepped onto my foot and I literally screamed for my life. By this time, I had hit my saturation point and I went to look for someone on the train but alas, I couldn’t find anyone except the TTE. I took out my entire frustration on him and he asked me to sit patiently. He assured me that he would send somebody but no single person came. Rats running freely inside the train made me realize that the train wasn’t disinfected either.
I kept thinking, if people are not getting checked properly then the cases are going to increase drastically when they reach their respective states. I understood the reason why India faced 4000 positive cases in one single day and the reason is simple, no one is bothered. I was recalling all blatant lies being put out by this government. It was disheartening to see how first they ignored the migrant labourers’ crisis and now they are ignoring the fact that there could be COVID-19 infected persons amongst the people travelling to different states. I was fearing that cases are going to increase, the death toll is going to increase and all because we collectively took this crisis lightly.
I was really tense after looking at the lackadaisical approach at the New Delhi railway station and was wondering – if the situation is such – in the capital city of this country, then how would it be in other states? As the train began to halt at Jammu Tawi railway junction, I heaved a sigh of relief as I could see from the window dozens of nodal authorities, health and police officers who were all wearing PPE kits. Even the coolies were in red PPE kits. Everyone was on their toes. The concept of social distancing was being taken care of. The officers were calling passengers one by one as per their berth seat, taking their personal details and their samples as well. For the test, all they did was insert a bud into one nostril and a slight sensation took place for a couple of seconds. The scenario was completely the opposite. As much as I was disappointed to see the lackadaisical approach in New Delhi, I got the same amount of relief and satisfaction to see the authorities of the State working efficiently and doing exactly what they get paid for.
After they took our samples, the officers took us to the tents that were put up inside the railway station itself according to the different districts. Drinking water, sandwiches and tea were being given to all the passengers. After the refreshment, passengers were being taken to the quarantine centres on a bus. All this while, I was thinking if it would be possible for my father and myself to manage in a quarantine centre as the reviews that had come to my notice were very disappointing.
There are 5-6 different quarantine centres in Jammu but my father and I, along with other passengers were taken to a marriage banquet hall turned into a quarantine centre which is barely at a distance of ten minutes from our house. We even saw our locality while we were on the bus and how badly we wished we could just get off from the bus and enter our house!
Finally, we reached the quarantine centre and joined the queue. I saw hundreds of beds inside the hall kept at a distance and passengers started choosing their beds. I immediately looked for a bed with the nearest charging point but couldn’t find one as all the nearest charging point beds were already taken by the passengers who had come before me. My father and I decided on our spots and settled down. One good thing was that the AC was working. All my anxiety immediately got better the minute I got cool air drifting on my face and body. We were given daal and chawal on a paper plate and it was pretty decent.
Navin Kumar, aged 36 and an account manager by profession living in the same quarantine centre says: “It was horrible at the New Delhi station but seeing officers at the Jammu railway station made me feel a little better but immediately I got shocked because I was not aware at all that all the passengers will be taken to the quarantine centre. Even my parents had come to pick me up. My parents even followed the bus till the quarantine centre. My mom was crying and dad was panicking. But once I reached here, it took half a day for me to adjust and get comfortable. All my loved ones are calling me every now and then to know my welfare but I would say it’s a commendable job being done by this particular centre as every necessity is being taken care of. Only the washroom condition and hygiene is a bit issue but after looking at the videos getting viral from people who are at MA stadium and other centres, I feel fortunate that I am at a better place.”
Another passenger Ashvini Kumar, the manager of a supply chain, aged 35 says: “Had the place been a bit more hygienic where workers would use the disinfectant spray at least once in a day, it would have been excellent but overall it’s a great job being done by Jammu and Kashmir.”
On the fourth day at the quarantine centre, all passengers continued to wait for the reports to come so that everybody can go back to their respective districts. The occasional sound of farts and PUBG gunfire wakes me up in the middle of the night. Deep inside, there is an irresistible urge to go back home, sleep in the comfort of my own bed and enjoy a warm sumptuous meal of haakh te baat.
In the midst of chaos, there is also an opportunity to learn. When I open my eyes in the morning to read the day’s news I realise how privileged I am. I realise that I could afford a train whereas, people who are the pulse of this economy are walking hundreds of miles every day to reach the comfort of their homes in this scorching heat, without food, water or even shelter on top of their heads before they close their eyes to call it a day.
UPDATE: Mr. Jai Singh, Tehsildar of this locality, addressed the first meeting on the fifth day.
Aur, social distancing ki watt lag gayi! (Social distancing went out the window)
When the news broke that the Tehsildarji has arrived, everyone rushed outside hopelessly thinking that perhaps, the reports may have finally come. But well, we have a year-long subscription of disappointment. The most astonishing fact that came to my notice was that the passengers who had arrived after us have received their reports.
The meeting lasted for less than 5 minutes in which the Tehsildar asked us to show some more patience and cooperation. He also added you can hold a protest if you want as it is your right. Now, do we have to protest in this scorching heat? Really?
No doubt all the arrangement is good but, what’s the point of feeding us chole bhature and rajma chawal? Isn’t it just adding unnecessary expenditure on government’s pocket? Shouldn’t they dispatch the reports early so that the money that they save from feeding 80 people here in a marriage hall can be distributed amongst the needy migrant labourers and those from an underprivileged background? Isn’t it risky to be amongst hundreds of people sharing the same hall? Who knows who is already a COVID positive patient amongst us?
Who shall be answerable, then?
UPDATE: On May 24, 9 days after staying at the quarantine centre, and a second round of sample collection, Sukanya and other passengers who arrived on the same day were given the results and allowed to go home.