(p. A1) SURAT, India — The crowds surged through the gates, fought their way up the stairs of the 160-year-old station, poured across the platforms and engulfed the trains.
It was May 5 , around 10 a.m. Surat was beastly hot, 106 degrees. Thousands of migrant laborers were frantic to leave — loom operators, diamond polishers, mechanics, truck drivers, cooks, cleaners, the backbone of Surat’s economy. Two of them were Rabindra and Prafulla Behera, brothers and textile workers, who had arrived in Surat a decade ago in search of opportunity and were now fleeing disease and death.
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They were among tens of millions of migrant workers stranded without work or food after Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a national coronavirus lockdown in March. By spring and summer, these workers were so desperate that the government provided emergency trains to carry them back to their home villages. The trains were called Shramik Specials, because shramik means “laborer” in Hindi.
But they became the virus trains.
India has now reported more coronavirus cases than any country besides the United States. And it has become clear that the special trains operated by the government to ease suffering — and to counteract a disastrous lack of lockdown planning — instead played a significant role in spreading the coronavirus into almost every corner of the country.
The trains became contagion zones: Every passenger was supposed to be screened for Covid-19 before boarding but few if any were tested. Social distancing, if promised, was nonexistent, as men pressed into passenger cars for journeys that could last days. Then the trains disgorged passengers into distant villages, in regions that before had few if any coronavirus cases.
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(p. A12) On March 24 , at 8 p.m., Mr. Modi hit the lockdown switch. In a televised address, he ordered the entire nation to stay inside their homes for three weeks — starting in four hours.
The decision was pure Modi: sudden, dramatic and firm, like when he abruptly wiped out nearly 90 percent of India’s currency bills in 2016, a bolt-from-the-blue measure that he said was necessary to fight corruption but proved economically devastating.
Prafulla and Rabindra Behera had just finished a dinner of rice, lentils and potatoes, their usual fare. They lived in squalid, bare rooms in Surat’s industrial zone, sleeping wall to wall on the floor with a half dozen other laborers. Within minutes of Mr. Modi’s address, they started getting calls.
“Everyone was thinking the same: This will be over soon and somehow we’ll pass the days,” Rabindra said.
At the time, India had fewer than 600 known virus cases.
Many experts have criticized Mr. Modi’s government for overlooking the plight of migrant laborers, who suddenly had no work, no income and no support network in the cities. The government’s Covid-19 task force lacked migrant specialists and was hardly representative of India. Of its 21 members, only two were women and the rest were largely upper-caste men. Many of the migrant laborers came from lower castes and economically underprivileged backgrounds.
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In Surat, the Behera brothers were down to their last bag of rice. They could not work — the factories were closed. But they weren’t allowed to leave the city, where virus cases were beginning to surge.
“We were trapped,” Rabindra said.
On May 1, India’s Labor Day, the railways ministry made a grand announcement: Shramik Specials. Routes were drawn up from Surat, Mumbai, Chennai, New Delhi, Ahmedabad and other cities deep into rural areas.
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The Beheras were told they would quarantine for 21 days at a center and each was given a toothbrush, a slice of soap, a bucket to wash with and a thin sheet to sleep on.
But the next morning, Prafulla awoke with a splitting headache. A doctor didn’t think he had coronavirus but suggested, as a precaution, that he be moved into the courtyard, away from the other men.
The following morning, Prafulla could barely breathe and called his wife on his cellphone.
“Come and bring the girls,” he whispered. “I need to see you.”
An hour later, he was dead. A subsequent test revealed that Prafulla Behera was Ganjam’s first coronavirus death.
(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. [sic] 2, 2021, and has the title “The Virus Trains: How Lockdown Chaos Spread Covid-19 Across India.”)