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Invoking a sentiment of social responsibility towards oneself, one’s family, and the entire nation, the Prime Minister of India last March announced what was initially supposed to be a 21-day COVID-19 lockdown (the duration of the lockdown was later extended). He urged all Indians to “stay at home, do just one thing… stay at home.” Shortly after this announcement was made, news channels broadcast videos and images of millions of migrant laborers with their families emptying out of cities and walking hundreds of kilometers to return to their villages. Trapped in cities without the basic resources needed to participate in this call for social responsibility, the migrant laborers decided to escape these conditions by walking, since no other transport option was available to them.

Under what sociopolitical conditions do trains “lose their way” and “well-oiled” public services fail their users?

With each passing day, reports of migrant laborer deaths increased. Starvation, exhaustion, and road accidents have been among the reasons cited for these deaths. While the COVID-19 narrative of social responsibility has become widely accepted globally, the experience of this sentiment is highly differentiated. The migrant laborer crisis shows how displays of social responsibility by staying “home” are predicated on access to basic amenities such as food and a stable income.

This reverse migration of migrant laborers also foregrounds the highly unequal quality of transport infrastructure in the country. For example, anthropologists have pointed out that in cities like Mumbai, transport infrastructures such as roads are touted as symbols of development for all, but in reality they favor the interests of privileged groups, while displacing low-income and other marginalized communities. In a similar vein, when I conducted fieldwork in Bengaluru city (2016–2018), I found that big-ticket transport infrastructures like the metro have displaced many people, especially those belonging to low-income and scheduled caste communities. Moreover, public transport like buses are allocated only on those routes that guarantee revenue, consequently marginalizing those who live in less “lucrative” areas.

As for interstate transport systems, the Indian Railways’ interstate network has a reputation for being a reliable, centralized public service. However, affordable travel on Indian Railways for low-income communities means travelling in cramped conditions in “unreserved compartments,” which are hidden from the view of middle-class travelers. Transport systems and infrastructures are not neutral public goods. They often further marginalize already vulnerable communities in India.

Critiques of unequal transport access frame the crisis in terms of its impact on social mobility and empowerment or disempowerment. Studies on slum evictions in Bengaluru and New Delhi have shown that the lack of access to transport can negatively impact employment, education, and consequently, social mobility for affected communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the severity of the impact that limited transport access can have on vulnerable communities. The consequences regarding the lack of transport access for India’s migrant laborers during the pandemic have shifted the narrative from one of empowerment and social mobility to one of life or death.

Well into the crisis, the central government of India in conversation with state governments decided to arrange interstate trains for the migrant laborers. Nevertheless, media reports indicate that these trains charged impoverished migrant laborers full ticket fares; took inordinately long periods of time to reach the destination; ran out of water, leaving passengers with unusable toilets and no drinking water; and in at least 40 cases, simply ended up at the wrong destination. Videos of these conditions and of migrant deaths over the course of these difficult journeys have been in circulation on social media. In disbelief, prominent journalists have referred to this unusual phenomenon of trains reaching the wrong destination as trains “losing their way.” This phrase indicates not only consternation at the circumstances, but also indexes the gravity of the unequal treatment meted out to India’s poor by governing bodies. As one journalist remarked, how does a “well-oiled machine” like Indian Railways malfunction when there is reduced traffic?

Under what sociopolitical conditions do trains “lose their way” and “well-oiled” public services fail their users? Why are migrant laborers faced with few transport options when it comes to reverse migration, especially when state governments readily organize buses for students to reach home safely, and the central government arranges repatriation flights? More broadly speaking, what does the COVID-19 pandemic have in store for the future of public transport? What does the future look like for visions of inclusive transport?

Jananie Kalyanaraman is a graduate student of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Cite as: Kalyanaraman, Jananie. 2020. “When Trains Lose Their Way.” Anthropology News website, September 11, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1490