Crowded trains roll despite Covid-19 spike

Thousands of people have booked seats on Indian trains that restarted on Tuesday after a seven-week lockdown - raising concerns the coronavirus will spread further in the absence of social distancing on the railways.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is starting to pull back from one of the world's tightest lockdowns of 1.3 billion people that has left millions out of work and stranded in cities far from home while infections keep rising.

State-run railways restarted services from New Delhi to 12 cities, including Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru, and within an hour, all seats were booked out online, a spokesman said.

"The trains will run full. Reservations have been made for 54,000 passengers," said another official.

Tuesday saw only a small resumption of India's notoriously overcrowded railway services that in normal times carry more than 20 million people a day.

Passengers will have to wear masks throughout the journey and will be screened before they board the train, the railway ministry said.

They also have to sign up for a government-backed contact tracing app on their phones.

The move comes as the number of coronavirus cases rose to more than 74,000 on Thursday.

At the current rate, India is set to surpass the number of infections in China in less than a week.

China's case toll now stands at nearly 83,000. Deaths from Covid-19 stood at 2,415 for India and 4,633 for China.

India's numbers are still small compared with those of the United States, United Kingdom and Italy, but many state leaders are wary of opening up rail, road and air networks for fear of an exponential rise in infections that would overwhelm the limited medical facilities.

During a video conference with Mr Modi to decide the way out of the lockdown that has battered the economy, the Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar said restarting rail services was a "mistake".

His state is already seeing a surge in infections as migrant workers from big cities such as Mumbai and Delhi reached home, he said.

The Chief Minister of Telangana K. Chandrasekhar Rao said restarting trains from Delhi, one of the coronavirus hotspots, is risky.

"It will not be possible to conduct tests on everyone. It is also difficult to put all those who travelled by train under quarantine," he said.

But Mr Modi is under pressure to ease restrictions from political leaders, businesses and people whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the lockdown.

On Monday, Mr Modi told the chief ministers that the Central government will consider a "gradual withdrawal"of the lockdown, which has been repeatedly extended until May 17.

"We have a two-fold challenge - reduce the transmission rate of the disease and increase public activity gradually," he said.

"Even as we look at the gradual withdrawal of the lockdown, we should constantly remember that till we do find a vaccine or a solution, the biggest weapon with us to fight the virus is social distancing."

India's rail, road and air services were suspended in March to stop infections in the country's interior, but the case numbers have risen daily.

Officials say the disease would have been more widespread without Mr Modi's stringent restrictions.

A fifth of India's cases come from the densely populated cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Pune, which are also major centres of economic activity.

Reuters

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