NEW DELHI • Tens of thousands of people have booked out seats on Indian trains that were due to restart yesterday, after a near seven-week lockdown, raising concerns over the spread of the coronavirus in the absence of social distancing.
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 the capital New Delhi to 12 cities, including Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru, and within an hour of opening, 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.
Yesterday's opening was a limited one for the notoriously overcrowded rail system that usually moves 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 India's coronavirus infections reached 70,756, adding 3,604 over the previous day.
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 82,918.
Deaths from Covid-19 stood at 2,293 for India and 4,633 for China.
India's coronavirus numbers are still small compared to those of the United States, Britain 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 eastern Bihar state, Mr Nitish Kumar, said restarting rail services was a "mistake".
His state was already seeing a surge in infections as migrant workers from India's big cities such as Mumbai and Delhi reached home, he told the meeting, according to a state official.
The chief minister of the southern state of Telangana, Mr K. Chandrasekhar Rao, said restarting trains from Delhi, one of the coronavirus hot spots, was 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 has been under increasing pressure from political leaders and businesses to ease the stringent measures. There are similar demands from people whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the shutdown.