Reporter's Diary: What It Was Like To Travel From Delhi To Jammu Amid COVID-19 Lockdown On Special Train
"There would not have been a better place to write this piece than a quarantine facility in Jammu as I am getting much needed calm and peace," says journalist Arjun Sharma.
There would not have been a better place to write this piece than a quarantine facility in Jammu as I am getting much needed calm and peace. I was put here on May 15 after returning from New Delhi on a special train. Though it was difficult to stay away from my home that is just 12 minutes drive from here, it was necessary.
On May 10, I was watching heartbreaking visuals of migrant workers and their children walking hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes as they were stuck in other parts of the country due to non-availability of work. They were forced to take this arduous journey as there was no option left for them.
I was privileged to have been staying with my wife at Mayur Vihar in Delhi whom I visited on March 12 and was since 'stuck' there. I had planned to stay with her for two weeks after which I had to return to my hometown, Jammu. However, a lockdown was announced on March 24 evening dashing all my hopes to ground. Being an independent journalist, this was the time that I should have been at Jammu from where I could have done some specials stories.
As soon as I saw the 'breaking news', below the visuals of migrant workers, that 15 special trains will chug out of New Delhi of which one will leave for Jammu, my hopes came alive. The notification by Indian Railways asked those who wanted to reserve a berth to apply online for a ticket at 4 pm on May 11. Waiting for this moment for nearly two months, I opened my laptop at 3.30 pm so that I don't miss the opportunity. May be thousands of others like me were thinking the same way, as a result, the website of railways crashed and resumed only at 6 pm.
Being a journalist my instinct did not let me down and I knew I would be able to crack the 'lucky draw' and get one ticket for myself. I made it and got a ticket booked from New Delhi to Jammu for May 14 evening. Soon, the railways started to drop SMSes regarding dos and don'ts on my mobile number.
This was the time when I asked my wife whether she would be fine living alone without me in such a situation? Her answer was an in affirmative as she herself is a journalist and can manage things on her own.
Different thoughts crossed our minds from non-availability of food in the train to social distancing that was necessary during my journey. From packed snacks and juices to face masks, sanitizers and surgical gloves, I was ready with everything and set to leave for the railway station in a private cab (as Ola and Uber were not operating in Delhi).
I left home at 6.15 pm on May 14 as my train was scheduled to depart at 9.10 pm and the railways had asked to reach at least 90 minutes prior to the departure. It was too early to leave but I thought that it may take time at the railway station in screening and thermal checking before I was allowed to board the train. I reached the station at around 6.45 pm.
While the officials present at the railway station were guiding people for social distancing soon after entering the railway premises, the panicky passengers made efforts to enter the building as it was raining. Soon after entering, my luggage that included two bags were screened and I got ready for something that I was to witness for the first time – thermal screening and other medical checks. But wait! I was told to proceed to platform number 3 from where my train would depart.
No thermal checks, no medical screening. I went straight to platform number 3 where the train number 02425 (NDLS JAT SPL) was already stationed with passengers entering it and adjusting on their respective seats. The train would halt only at Ludhiana station. Almost all the passengers had entered the train at 7.20 pm and the air conditioning was switched on by 7.30 as it was too hot inside the cabins.
Even as none had instructed the passengers about social distancing, they were strictly observing it. Sitting on their respective seats, passengers started to interact with each other. With the happiness to go back to their homes along with the fear of a necessary administrative quarantine in Jammu, passengers were discussing every topic.
With side lower berth allotted to me, I became a part of the interaction and one of the co-passenger who would get off at Ludhiana told that he would not be put in a necessary quarantine. While the train still had half an hour to begin, another gentleman in his late 50s told me that there was no necessary quarantine at Jammu till I showed him an official order by the Chief Secretary of J&K stating that it was indeed necessary. He was disheartened and I tried to make him understand that the quarantine was good for us, our families and society at large.
At 9.10 pm the train started its journey with chatters in Dogri (the language of Jammu), Kashmiri and Punjabi started to emanate from different compartments. Following the norms of social distancing and staying on their allotted seats, my co-passengers started to discuss as to how Coronavirus has badly affected the lives of common people.
After nearly one hour journey from New Delhi, the ticket checker entered our coach and started to check the tickets of each and every passenger. There was a stark difference in checking of tickets during normal times and these times when pandemic has gripped the nation. The ticket checker only asked about the name and number of the seat (even without seeing the ticket) from passengers individually without even seeing their identity cards. Asking some passengers to update their address on railways portal he told that the government should know the address of those passengers who are travelling on this train. Mobile numbers of all passengers were noted down by the ticket checker.
It was nearly 11.30 pm when people started to switch off the lights in their cabins but I was up as I had to make the notes of the journey and jot down important points to write a first-person account later. I noticed that people had brought their own shawls, bed covers and even pillows as the railways had notified in advance that no such comforts would be provided in the train. Even the curtains separating the cabins from the corridor and the ones on windows were absent.
At around 1.15 am, the train reached Ludhiana, the city where I lived and worked with a national daily as a journalist from 2012 to 2017. I could see the railway station from inside. It was the same place where I had visited several times when I used to go to Jammu in late-night trains. There used to be hundreds of people every time I visited the place but it looked deserted. I did not venture out as it would not have been safe as many cases of the infection were reported in Ludhiana in recent times. The train started its journey after a halt of 10 minutes.
I was on platform number three of the Jammu railway station at nearly 5.15 am, half an hour before the scheduled time. Policemen had surrounded the coach and asked one person to come out of the coach at a time. My number came after 25 minutes and I went out with my luggage. I could not recognize the railway station in my hometown.
Teams of doctors and health staff with Personal protective Equipment (PPE) were seen all around. Health kiosks dotted the entire railway station. A team of four health officials sitting in front of my coach asked my name, mobile number, address and district where I would go before asking me to proceed. Railways had marked the entire railway station with circles for people to follow social distancing.
After reaching platform number 1, we were examined at a health kiosk where a bud was put inside my nose and a stamp of 'sampled' on my right hand. We were asked to proceed to the waiting bay within the railway station premises.
All districts had different waiting bay as the administration would send those out of Jammu to their respective districts in buses where they would be put in quarantine. I entered the bay for Jammu district. Soon I overheard some saying that there was a facility of 'paid quarantine'. During my stay in Delhi, I had heard and read about the poor condition of government facilities where people were quarantined. Thinking that it would become hard to stay at such a facility I opted for paid quarantine.
Soon the buses were ready and people who had opted for paid quarantine were sent to a hotel near Bus Stand Jammu.
Here inside the room at this quarantine facility, I receive three meals and tea in the morning and evening. The staff has been asked to follow the norms of social distancing by the administration. Chairs have been placed near the doors of the rooms where food is placed before the bell is rung to ask us to pick up the food. No physical contact is ever made.
However, it is May 19 and I am still in the quarantine. Anger is brewing in almost all the quarantine facilities in Jammu division where people are waiting for the past five to six days for their results. Being in a paid quarantine, I have the facility of individual washroom but I feel aghast at the condition of the government quarantine centres where 150 people use the single washroom as told social media.
Peeping out of the window in my room, I keep on watching Jammu - a city bustling with traffic and people have turned silent. This is the longest ever journey from New Delhi to my home (where I have still not reached) in Jammu ever witnessed by me.