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The 36-Hour Operation Which Saved Delhi From Turning into A Corona Hotbed

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By Sidharth Mishra

New Delhi: In a state-wide operation run by the Uttar Pradesh government over 36 hours last week around two lakh people were evacuated and dropped safely under much challenging situation. This is an extra-ordinary story about an efficient and alert bureaucracy which worked overtime to end a near catastrophic situation created by an equally callous administration of the neighbouring state.

On March 19, the Prime Minister, following the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic, had announced plans for Janata curfew on coming Sunday and the bureaucracy was sounded of a possible longer lockdown thereafter.

In ordinary situations such a lockdown would have meant shut down of a state service like the Uttar Pradesh Road Transport Corporation (UPRTC), which operates buses across the vast state. But its managing director Raj Shekhar thought otherwise. He decided to slowly and gradually withdraw the service allowing people to return home.

On March 24, the Prime Minister announced a complete lockdown for 21 days from next day, which meant that one was to stay where s/he was. The UPSRTC too decided to halt its services but not before keeping 10 percent of the fleet on alert with every depot. The drivers and conductors were sent on leave and minimal staff kept at the depots.

By the evening of March 26, however, calls started coming to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s office about people violating lockdown provisions and walking to their homes. The trickle turned into a deluge by the evening when it was realized that the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) was operating its fleet of buses encouraging people to board it and dropping them at the Uttar Pradesh border near Anand Vihar. Across the border is UPSRTC’s Kaushambi Bus Stand and the Sahibabad depot.

In the meanwhile, frequency of frantic call to the Chief Minister’s office became frenzied as the residents of Kaushambi, an upmarket residential enclave, started calling fearing safety from the milling crowds. “The people were tired, hungry and worried about what awaited them. They were all over the colony and across Dr Burman Road occupying the overbridge from Anand Vihar and flooding the bus stand,” said SC Rajvanshi who heads residents’ welfare association (RWA) of one of the residential towers closer to the bus stand. “I have never seen so many people in Kaushambi anytime for over quarter of a century that I have been staying here. I felt worried for our safety,” he adds.

On the other hand, in Lucknow, by the night of March 26, it was felt that evacuating people from Kaushambi was the best option to overcome the crisis, lest it turn into a Coronavirus hotbed. Orders were passed onto the UPSRTC to arrange for buses. “I was such a challenging task to evacuate a virtual sea of humanity especially when the drivers and the conductors had gone home following the lockdown orders,” says Raj Shekhar recalling the start of the operation.

“We were given the task on March 27 and we assured to deliver. The Chief Minister thereafter made announcement assuring people about buses arriving. His promise had to kept,” he adds.

All the 20 regional managers of the corporation were immediately activated to mobilise drivers and conductors and also check on the availability of the buses. Despite the heavy odds of getting the drivers and conductors come from their rural habitats to their respective bus depots under the lockdown situations, a plan was drawn by the evening of March 27 that 200 buses could be operated to leave the border stand every hour from the morning of March 28.

State’s additional chief secretary Awnish Awasthi, meanwhile, acted as the nodal authority coordinating with the district administrations to first allow the drivers and conductors safe passage to the deports and then a hassle-free corridor for the buses driving out with the passengers. “To the pleasant surprise of everyone, the drivers and conductors rose to the challenge and started arriving at the depots and joined duties despite the odds,” Shekhar added.

The next challenge was safety of the drivers and conductors from the virus. The depots were ordered that every bus was to be sanitized before it was put into operation. The meagre work force at the depots worked through the night. Next was managing safety gears for 2000 plus drivers and as many conductors. The nodal authority was again pressed into action and a kit of a pair of gloves, mask and hand sanitizers were arranged for the crew of each of the bus from across the state.

“Buses were there, so was the crew now the challenge at hand was to draw a timetable for departure. We could allocate buses for the centres for which passengers were not waiting,” says Shekhar. This needed local level intelligence and feedback. With these inputs buses were allocated for various routes. “Not an easy job given the vast state Uttar Pradesh is,” adds Shekhar.

For district administration of Ghaziabad and Noida, meanwhile, it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep people calm and wait for the buses. To their relief the first cluster of buses arrived at the Kaushambi bus stand at 10 in the morning. “Thereafter the challenge was to keep providing 100 buses every two hours,” says Shekhar.

Meanwhile the control room at the Kalidas Marg residence of the Chief Minister kept taking an hourly report on the number of buses arriving and departing and the number of people evacuated. It stopped breathing down the neck of the transport officials only after it got a verified report by the evening of March 29 that 90 percent of the crowd had thinned out and the crisis at Kaushambi was over.

“Our job did not end with the buses leaving the depots. The depots across the states were alerted about the time table of the buses arriving with the passengers. The passengers were to be handed over to the local officials for screening etc. The regional depots again managed to excel at coordination and we could close operation March 31,” adds Shekhar.

The UP government acknowledging the contribution of all the drivers, conductors and depot staff have issued them letters of appreciation. “But for them, this operation would not have been possible,” says Shekhar. Asked if this operation was given a name, Shekhar says, “we seldom glorify our work.”



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