Railways Ministry and Tamil Nadu government spar over quarantine facilities

At a time when health infrastructure in Chennai is overwhelmed due to the high surge in the number of COVID-19 cases in the city, Tamil Nadu government and Union Railways Ministry are sparring over creating quarantine facilities for around 1500 passengers arriving in a special Rajdhani train from Delhi to Chennai tonight.

Though the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister had requested Prime Minister Modi and the central government not to permit regular air or train services in the state until 31 May, the central government is yet to accept the state’s request.  Apart from this, the Chief Minister also expressed concerns over creating quarantine facilities for the incoming train passengers.

In a strongly worded letter to the Union Minister for Railways, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami said, “I hope you will appreciate the risk of operating an air-conditioned train service at this juncture to Chennai city, in which even if one person carries coronavirus, it will endanger all other passengers in the train. This unilateral decision by the Railways, when the lockdown is still in force, prohibiting interstate passenger transport, operating these trains, will further complicate our efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19.”

The decision to run special train services from Delhi by the Railways Ministry came as a surprise to the state government which is already struggling in terms of making quarantine arrangements and conducting RT-PCR tests for all those passengers who are coming to the state through ‘Shramik trains’, ‘Vande Bharat’ mission flights and ‘Samudra Setu’ ships.

A senior government official who spoke to Times Now said, “Chennai is already reporting 500-600 COVID-19 cases per day. We are testing close to 4000 persons in the city every day. Due to this load, the results are getting delayed and when we are stretching ourselves with existing case load, imposing a heavy burden on the state by operating special trains and sending thousands of passengers poses a serious challenge to our efforts in fighting this pandemic.”

Around 1500 people are expected to arrive in Chennai through Rajdhani Express on Thursday night. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister in his letter claimed that as per the Government of India protocol, all passengers travelling in these special trains have to be quarantined in the recipient state and can only be allowed in the city after they test negative for COVID-19. This would require a huge facility to accommodate all the passengers, the CM said.

For that reason, CM Palaniswami wanted Railways to keep these passengers at a Railway quarantine facility till their COVID-19 test results are obtained. The State Government also offered to provide necessary protection and other support if needed by the Railways for the same.

However, in response to the Chief Minister’s letter, Union Minister for Railways Piyush Goyal has justified the Ministry’s decision to operate special trains based on the order of Ministry of Home Affairs and pointed out that the MHA does not prescribe compulsory RT-PCR testing of passengers as claimed by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister.

Piyush Goyal also flatly rejected the suggestion of CM Palaniswami and said,” Railways infrastructure is developed for transportation of people and we cannot carry out quarantine and other action suggested by you. Therefore, on arrival, the passengers have to be dealt with by the State Government as per MHA’s guidelines.”

This has sent officials from the Chennai Corporation into a tizzy as they have to now make arrangements for the passengers arriving in Chennai through these special trains. According to a government official, they have identified places for quarantine centres to be set up for the incoming passengers. “1500 is quite a high number to conduct COVID-19 tests in a day or so. We are in consultation with the Railway authorities to make adequate arrangements,” he said.