Karachi’s Cantt Station on Monday was a reminiscent of Partition when railway platforms on both sides of the border became cram-full of passengers seeking to migrate to the other side in the chaotic time.
This time the chaos was certainly not because of migration, but seemingly a blunder on the part of the federal authorities. The chaos that the pre-Partition railway station has been witnessing since Sunday, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, can nullify the intended results of the lockdown imposed by the provincial government since the midnight between Sunday and Monday.
Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre’s (JPMC) Executive Director Dr Seemin Jamali was baffled with the unending queues of passengers, most of them daily wagers in Karachi, to get the railway ticket. “Who allowed them to gather in the railway station shoulder to shoulder?” she annoyingly asked. “They were supposed to be controlled. The attitude of passengers is very incorrect.”
Jamali believed that illiteracy was playing a major role in the expansion of the virus. “We are working opposite to the concept of distancing,” she lamented.
To all those who went to the railway station, she asked to put themselves in self quarantine and visit a health facility if they showed any symptoms. “I am sure there must be a large number of passengers who couldn’t get the ticket,” she said and added that when they all came back, they should isolate themselves.
As many as 19 trains departed from the Cantt Station on Monday and as many arrived. Each service had additional two or three bogies as the Pakistan Railway has already suspended the operation of 12 of its trains across Pakistan.
By Wednesday, 22 more upcountry and down country train operations will be suspended, out which Karachi’s services will be Bolan Mail, Sir Syed Express and Jinnah Express. The other suspended trains include Khushhal Khan Khattak Express (from Peshawar to Karachi-Karachi to Peshawar), Akbar Express (from Lahore to Quetta-Quetta to Lahore), Sindh Express (from Karachi to Multan-Multan to Karachi), Ravi Express (from Lahore to Shorkot-Shorkot to Lahore), Shah Latif Express (from Dhabeji to Mirpurkhas-Mirpurkhas to Dhabeji) and Rohi Passenger from Sukkur to Khanpur.
Speaking to The News, an official of the Pakistan Railways, on the condition of anonymity, said that the rush of passengers at the Cantt Station was unprecedented. Everyone, he said, started rushing towards the Cantt Station after the announcement of the complete lockdown in Karachi on Sunday.
“Before midnight, thousands of passengers had already reached the station, as intra-city transport service was also put to halt,” the official said and added that they had limited space in the Cantt Station and couldn’t manage thousands of passengers at a time. “The rush was uncontrollable,” the official said.
One of reasons of the overburden, according to the official, is the suspension inter-city transport throughout the province, which transferred the load to the Pakistan Railways. When asked why they didn’t suspend the railway operations, the official shared that only the prime minster of Pakistan could give such orders, “not even the railway minister”.
The suspension, according to him, is a very catch-22 situation, as the Pakistan Railways has some 72,000 workers and 125,000 pensioners. “With the suspension of the entire operation, how will the authorities pay salaries and pensions to is staff?” the official said.
As all the marriage halls across the country have been shut down, according to the Pakistan Railways official, and most of passengers who wanted to travel for marriage purposes have returned their tickets, dealing a blow to fare revenue.
Another senior Pakistan Railways official from Lahore shared that the decision of the Pakistan Railways of not shutting down its operation could cause an unprecedented loss to the country. “In my personal capacity, I believe the operation must have been suspended much earlier,” the official said.
Plight of daily wagers
Unending queues of people intending to buy tickets were seen at the Cantt Station, which was being monitored by officials of the Sindh Rangers. These officials were not only managing the queues but also distributed masks and sanitisers to the passengers and visitors.
An announcement, which largely remained unheard, was being made through loudspeakers forbidding passengers from shaking hands or hugging each other and also asking for maintaining a one-foot distance at least. The platform was teeming with elderly and young passengers eagerly waiting for the arrival of trains.
When the Jinnah Express reached the platform, passengers jostled for entry and pushed one another. Muhammad Razzaq works at a tandoor at Kati Pahari and earns Rs1,000 per day. He along with his three brothers, who are all daily wagers, need train tickets to make their way back to their hometown in Burewala near Multan.
Since businesses are being shut down across the city, Razzaq told The News on Monday that they needed to leave. When asked if they realised how dangerous it was to travel, he responded that the government should think about it.
Twenty-five-year old Muhammad Mubarik wanders at the platform carrying a bottle of a soft drink and chips, waiting for his train, which is supposed to transport him to his hometown, Mir Pur in Sindh. He works in a towel factory in the Site area and makes Rs20,000 monthly.
“With the closure of the factory, I am left here alone,” he said and shared that he used to live in the factory and for the past two days he has had go no place to stay in.
Holidays during calamity
An elderly lady who didn’t share her name walked onto the platform clutching her granddaughter’s hand. “We just need to get back to Punjab; no matter what, I need to be there,” she said when asked her reason of travel.
Fariha is a mother of two and her husband is an electrical engineer in Karachi. The family is making their way back to Lodhran in Punjab. “They’ve got vacations and we have no family, friends in Karachi,” she said and added that they would take all precautions they could during the travel.
Arsal is a video editor in Karachi and is secretly going back to his home in Punjab. “I understand the intensity of the situation, but what would I do staying her in Karachi, when everything is locked down,” he said and added that his family didn’t know that he was travelling.