Before the Mumbai Metropolitan Region opens up further, that is if it does, one thing has to be done. All offices and shops need to stagger their office and shop hours, not making any exception, whether the offices are private, state or central government or para-statal.
It’s not a new idea. It has been talked about of by politicians and officials for quite some time in the past but none moved to start even planning for it. It's an idea time whose time has come. If brought to effect, it would be accepted now.
I have drawn the attention of few influential senior politicians who swing a lot of clout who appreciated the timing of the move. I have tweeted to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and the CMO. There are no signs that it is being planned. If it is, we don't know about it.
Else, Mumbai with an exceptionally high caseload of Covid19 among all cities, which gives Maharashtra the status of a worst-affected state, will run into further trouble.
More easing means more people out at least on work which means increase in the number of passengers on the local trains and buses across the several cities on the periphery of Mumbai, that is the entire MMR. Nine cities and several smaller towns all connected by local trains.
The increase in the caseloads in the cities around Mumbai - Thane, Navi Mumbai, Mira-Bhayander, Bhiwandi, Ulhasnagar, Panvel, Kalyan-Dombivali by a factor of four has been attributed to the opening up after the lockdown.
It so happens that it is not yet pre-Covid state - there are people indoors, not all shops are open all days, not all offices are open as in the past. The latter are with just 10 per cent staff. Public transport continues to be limited.
Now imagine the day when trains are run to carry the usual strength carrying the regular load of about eight million people per day. The municipalised buses too are operationalised likewise.
They would be mobile hotspots, contact tracing not just difficult but impossible. Masks may be worn but people travelling on those commuter trains cannot think of physical distancing on the platforms and in the coaches. If air passengers are seen literally pouring over each other's shoulder, you cannot expect commuters to maintain distancing. Just impossible. Moreover, the protocol and fuss that we had for air travel is required even for local commuters. They are not on cattle trains or trucks.
While the seating capacity on an average is 1,200 per train, they carry around 4,000 - peak crush capacity crowd, a railway description.
Staggering office hours alone, however, is not the solution. They need to be combined with changes in the train timings, their frequency, the first mile connectivity from home to stations and stations to offices. That involves rescheduling bus timings.
The peak loads would lessen and loads get distributed. In most cities, as long peripheral cities operate only feeder routes in a hub-and-spokes manner. They do not have enough buses which are rested during the rest of the day, brought out only again in the evenings.
One suggestion is to focus not only on some basis like names of offices, probably alphabetically and geographically. That could lead to some trains running up to certain locations. Not all need to terminate at Churchgate or CSMT.
During the start of the limited opening after the lockdown, the railways had brought up the idea. Probably, a complex algorithm may be involved but it would certainly be worth it. If they and the cities around and North of Mumbai sit together with the government brass, it can be worked out. The time is short. The time is now.