No physical distancing in train, fleeced at paid quarantine hotels: Chennai returnees

While people from hotspot are happy to have arrived back here, some people from states with lesser COVID-19 cases expressed regret.
Shramik special train
Shramik special train
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“All the seats of the shramik special trains were filled without leaving any seat empty to maintain social distancing,” recalls Anitha, who returned to Chennai on the special shramik train arranged from New Delhi. “I saw people removing their masks once the train started. There were pregnant women and other vulnerable people on board as well, travelling along with the air-conditioners switched on. I was petrified and worried that I may contract the coronavirus.”

Twenty-year-old Anitha*, who is a student of a private college, was in Secunderabad when she learnt of the train service from New Delhi to MGR Chennai Central station with a stop in Warangal. Anitha immediately consulted with her family members and booked tickets for six of her relatives in the AC compartment to travel to Chennai.

From Secunderabad, Anitha and the five others reached Warangal by a cab, maintaining physical distance and wearing masks. Anitha was relieved that she would finally be home after 60 days. But once the train arrived, her relief turned to fear.

As soon as the train reached Warangal, the passengers standing in rows maintaining physical distance rushed as groups, safety norms against COVID-19 all but forgotten, narrates Anitha. “The journey was nothing short of an ordeal because there was no one to even clean or sanitize the compartment during the journey. The canteen staff also came selling food. The regular chatter of the train made it seem like it was any other normal day,” she alleges.

At the end of the seven-hour-long journey, Anitha reached Chennai late on May 14 and the officials gave her the option either to stay in free government quarantine camps or paid hotel quarantine centers. Since they were mostly women, Anitha says she decided to take rooms in the hotels as the officials on the counter allegedly informed her that they need to stay only for two days till the COVID-19 test results arrived.

However, according to the guidelines issued by the government on May 14, institutional quarantine for seven days is mandatory. “Tamil Nadu has made testing compulsory for everyone returning to the state. If the person tests positive they will be sent to hospital for treatment. If the person tests negative, they will be told to stay in institutional quarantine for seven days followed by home quarantine,” the guidelines state.

Problems faced at paid quarantine centers

Once the passengers got out of the train, corporation officials took Anitha and the other passengers in a special bus to the paid quarantine hotels in the city. “The corporation officials told us that the rent of the room was Rs 2,500 per day and we would need to stay for two days. The corporation arranged a three-star hotel in Egmore and we paid Rs 2,500 for a room as an initial amount.  However, on the second day, once the swab test was over, the hotel staff said that the charges are Rs 2,500 per person, and not per room,” says Anitha, who took a twin-sharing option.

“At the reception, they told us to pay Rs 2,500 per head. For a two-sharing room they told us to pay Rs 5,000 for a single day. The hotel authorities also told us to take one room each to maintain physical distancing but we didn’t have so much money. So all the passengers started arguing with them and the hotel finally gave an option of Rs 5,500 for a room with triple-sharing,” Anitha states.

‘’Despite paying so much money, the service was poor and they provided us with curd rice thrice a day. The restrooms were not cleaned for four days. The landline was not working for asking help from room service either,” she adds.

Even the results of swab tests were delayed, Anitha alleges.  “The test reports should have reached us on the second day. The wait was very hard and we were scared. They finally told us the results at the end of the fourth day that except for two of the people in our train, all others have tested negative. So the people who travelled with the patients in the same coach alone were told to extend the quarantine.  In the end of four days, my roommate and I paid a total of Rs 20,000 to the hotel,” says Anitha.

Niranjan*, who also travelled in the same train as Anitha from Delhi, reached Chennai and was sent to a paid quarantine centre in Kilpauk.  “As soon as we got down the police officials took the group of vulnerable people including the elderly, pregnant women and children to the bus arranged by the Chennai Corporation. Then the remaining passengers got down from the train and we were told that the rooms are available in two hotels in Kilpauk. We were taken to our hotels and the prices of the rooms for people were Rs 2,500 for single occupancy stay, Rs 3,250 for double sharing and Rs 4,000 for three sharing. We were also told to stay in the hotels till the test results arrive,” says Niranjan.

These allegations of exorbitantly priced hotel rooms for quarantine and inadequate services are similar to ones coming from Karnataka as well. Read: Paid quarantine hotels in Karnataka fleecing people? Experiences at one Bengaluru hotel

Lack of transportation and e-passes

The Chennai Corporation officials had allegedly told passengers that once the test results arrive, buses will be arranged for taking them back to their native districts. On May 17, the test results came and all were negative but the corporation failed to arrange for buses, says Niranjan. “On Sunday night, the corporation informed us that they are unable to arrange for the buses to our hometowns and we need to wait for 2-3 days if we need bus services. However, the pressure from the side of the hotels also mounted. They told us to vacate immediately. So we had to arrange for cabs at the last minute and leave the city,” he narrates.

“Since we were informed in the nick of time, we asked the officials for passes. But they simply told us to show out COVID-19 negative certificates and train tickets. Whenever we were stopped in our cabs, we had to show the certificates. However, officials didn’t allow a Salem passenger into the district and he was told to stay in institutional quarantine. However, after an argument the officials finally dropped him at his home,” Niranjan says.

Mixed reactions among returnees

While people from hotspots are happy to have arrived back in Chennai, people coming from states with lesser cases regret having come to Chennai.

Anitha, who returned home from the paid quarantine centers on Tuesday, says, “I regret the decision to come back home. The journey was risky and only on reaching Chennai did we realise that we have left a safer place to enter a hotspot. Even then, I see people in Chennai walking around the city without wearing masks. I think the Telangana government was taking stricter actions comparatively.”

Differing from this view, Niranjan says, “Tamil Nadu is far more efficient in managing the situation, and more testing is also being done here.” The Delhi-NCR returnee says that the Noida sector was opened for business even when the Aarogya Setu app showed increasing cases. “I feel safe here in Coimbatore and I am currently quarantining myself at home.”

TNM has reached out to an official of the Southern Railways for comments. The story will be updated once a response is received. 

*Names changed

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