The Covid-19 pandemic created one of the worst mass migration crises on the Indian subcontinent in recent times. In the wake of this looming humanitarian crisis, the Indian Railways (IR) stepped up to the challenge of transporting millions of stranded migrant workers to their homes. Between May 1 and June 26, IR carried approximately 6.3 million migrants across the country on 4,594 “Shramik” trains. During this unprecedented crisis, IR demonstrated excellent operational responsiveness and commitment to the nation.

The logistical challenge

India went into a nationwide lockdown on March 24. With almost no time to plan, migrant daily-wage earners were stranded far away from their homes, mostly in resource-constrained urban centres. Getting them home was soon turning into a national crisis, with many migrants choosing to walk hundreds of kilometres in utter desperation.

Given the sheer volume, stringent guidelines for physical distancing, and health risks involved, rail transportation was the only possible option. On May 1, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced its decision to ply special inter-state “Shramik” trains to transport the migrants.

IR’s passenger train network had shut down due to the pandemic. A transportation plan needed to be configured and executed immediately while overcoming these exceptional constraints.

Demand estimation and scheduling trains

Retrospective analysis reveals the magnitude of this challenge.As of June 24, data from the ministry of railways shows that the workforce originated from 27 states (303 stations) and travelled to 24 destination states (252 stations). Figure 1 shows the top originating and receiving states.

There was also a wide variation in daily demand. With no pre-specified timetable and dynamic demand, scheduling of resources was challenging. Given the uncertainty in daily demand, IR chose to operate a “trains on-demand” schedule.

Shramik trains operated on some of the congested corridors carrying freight trains. Freight movement had seen an increased volume during the lockdown. Moreover, the Shramik trains could only depart post noon because boarding procedures followed stringent health safety protocols. These constraints led to traffic congestion in a few sectors. Rather than allowing stoppages due to congestion, IR devised a diversion strategy. Guided by analytics and AI-based control rooms, IR was able to route the trains along optimally chosen paths. The trade-off was between longer travel times and stoppages due to congestion on shorter routes. About 1% of the trains travelled longer distances than necessary. IR staggered arrivals at congested destinations and increased travel speeds.

Managing resources

At a minimum cost of ₹600 per traveller, the total cost estimate was about ₹378 crore. The central government pooled emergency reserves to absorb 85% of the operating cost, and the states picked up the remaining 15%. With no external vendors operating to provide food supplies, IR mobilised its resources to set up temporary kitchens to provide food and drinking water packets. They also coordinated with NGOs to deliver additional meal packets.

Health safety and public scrutiny

IR prepared standard operating procedures, involving the state governments, to receive the passengers and maintain protocols for health safety. At each originating nodal station, IR appointed nodal officers who worked with the state governments to coordinate the assembly and boarding, ensuring health safety restrictions. The railway protection force expedited processes to render assistance by assigning medical and security personnel to every train.

Dealing with public scrutiny was challenging. Media reports about the Shramik trains getting lost created confusion. In response, Railway Board chairman Vinod Kumar Yadav addressed the media on May 29. “We monitored every train and every passenger. The news about the missing train, and starvation during the journey, are fallacious,” he clarified.

In summary

Helping approximately 6.3 million migrant workers get home safely was necessary to save India from a huge humanitarian crisis. Highlighting how IR came to take on this unprecedented challenge, Yadav said, “Ministry of Railways was asked at very short notice to leverage IR’s full capacity for transporting migrant labour across the country. The railway staff went beyond the call of duty to put things in place in a difficult Covid situation, beyond anybody’s imagination, to take all the migrant labourers back home.”

IR was able to adapt quickly and efficiently in the face of adversity. In this case, one may argue that IR, being a public sector organisation, had a responsibility to help the migrant workforce. However, the cost of poor execution would have been immense. This project is also an excellent example of how PSUs and governmental agencies can play a crucial role during national crises through coordination and collaboration.

Views are personal. Sohoni is a professor in the operations management department and deputy dean, ISB; Sunder M. is an assistant professor of practice in the operations management department, ISB.

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