Lifeline, Restarted

Pranita Deshpande rode the local trains of the Western Line in Mumbai when they began after being suspended for months.

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If you are an average middle-class Mumbaikar, you cannot go a day without boarding a local train. Mumbai’s suburban train services are one of the busiest and well-connected networks in the world, carrying approximately 7.5 million people daily. Mumbai runs on its locals. Services are rarely affected, especially for a long period.The pandemic, of course, brought a different story. Mumbai locals were suspended on 22nd March 2020 and were closed off for the general public for nearly ten months. It was the first time that Mumbaikars did not have access to the most affordable and efficient mode of travel. The city shrank dramatically.

The services opened for the ultra-essential and essential services providers in a staggered manner. On 1 February 2021, locals resumed for the general public. With specific time slots and strict guidelines, the city was finally getting back on its feet. It was a litmus test. 

On 2 February 2021, a photograph of a commuter bowing down to a local train had gone viral. It was a moment in which he acknowledged his indebtedness to the trains; that it went viral meant that each person who shared it felt a resonance. It was a moment of collectivised worship. The local trains make it possible for people from far off suburbs to work in the city and survive. They enable livelihoods.

“I am the only person who earns, how can I be scared? When the trains started for the public, I went too. I would wear my mask and carry my sanitiser,” said Seema Lohat, a domestic worker who would travel from Nallasopara to Dahisar every day. For Lohat, a single mother, access to local trains meant she could put food on the table for her two children. It was a matter of survival. During the lockdown in 2020, her 18-year-old son took up a job as an office boy and earned around six to seven thousand rupees a month.

On the other hand, 24-year-old Rohan Anand, an architect from Mumbai would travel from Malad to Churchgate . “It was comparatively less crowded in the afternoon, so it was possible to sit and travel whenever I was required to go to work, once a week or so.” .

Lohat and Anand may board the same Churchgate train to commute to their workplaces but their lack of access to the railways  had different implications. For one it is a change in lower body clothing; for the other it is a change in destiny. When shooting for this essay, I met Sayali Wadke. Wadke, much like others, was also a daily commuter. "If people don't go to work, they will have nothing to eat.

When shooting for this essay, I met Sayali Wadke. Wadke, much like others, was also a daily commuter. "If people don't go to work, they will have nothing to eat. Even during such a pandemic, there is no other option but to travel in the locals. It is understandable why the trains are crowded. In the afternoon, it feels safe enough, but in the peak hours during the night, it does not. Still, you can't help it," she says. 

Witnessing a commuter saying a word of prayer before boarding a packed train is not an uncommon sight. But what was the option?

Since my conversation with Wadke, things have changed drastically. By March 2021, the local trains were running at 95% capacity. But there was also a steady rise in cases in the city through February and March. It was risky to commute on a packed local train daily, riskier than it normally is. (According to the data compiled by Mumbai's Railway Police Commissionerate, more than 2500 commuters died and over 3000 commuters were injured in 2019.) Maharashtra is at the time of writing the worst affected state in the country. The government imposed lockdown-like curbs on 5th April. These curbs were extended to 15th May. Only essential services were exempted and were allowed to function without restrictions. For the second time, public transport is only available for government personnel and  frontline workers. 

Lohat wonders what is next, she asks me, “When will the lockdown end, do you know?”