Police personnel and officials walk on a rail track as they check the site following a train accident that killed 16 migrant workers sleeping on the track between Jalna and Aurangabad districts in Maharashtra state on May 8. (Photo: STR/AFP)
A freight train running over 16 migrant laborers sleeping on a track in central India shows the desperate situation and misery of millions in the country, say church officials.
Sixteen of the 20 people, including women and children, died instantly in the early-morning accident on May 8 near Aurangabad in Maharashtra state. Police hospitalized the four survivors with critical injuries.
The migrants were sleeping on the rail track after becoming exhausted while walking to their homes as no public transport was available because of the Covid-19 lockdown.
“It is shocking and beyond our comprehension,” said Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh state. All the deceased were from the area covered by his diocese.
The train driver tried to slow down the train after seeing people on the track but could not do so as the train was at high speed, officials of the South Central Railway said.
The deceased were walking from Jalna town towards their homes in Aurangabad city and beyond. They had lost their jobs because of the Covid-19 lockdown.
Officials said they were not allowed to travel to Aurangabad, a Covid-19 red zone. They chose the railway line to walk on during the night to avoid police. They must have been exhausted after walking almost 40 kilometers. Their destinations were 150 to 850 kilometers away from the accident site, officials said.
The migrants chose to sleep on the track, assuming that there were no trains because of the lockdown. The track was above ground and they must have considered it better than the nearby bushes as a place to sleep, aiming to avoid snakes and stray animals, officials said.
“People are sad and worried,” said Father Jose Antony, a diocesan priest working in Shahdol district, which was the destination for nine of the victims. “It is common for people here to move to other cities and towns for work.”
Most of the victims were working in a steel factory in Jalna and lost their jobs following the lockdown.
“Their priority was to get back home. The tragedy has once again exposed the plight of the poor in the country,” Bishop Almeida said.
Officially, India’s internal migrants number 454 million, or 37 percent of its 1.2 billion people. But experts in migrant issues say the numbers are grossly underestimated. At least half of migrants are unskilled and unorganized workers who enjoy no job security.
Millions remain stranded and hungry, the bishop said. The accident victims would not have dared to make such a difficult journey if they had not run short of basic amenities to keep themselves alive in the lockdown, he added.
The accident also proves the “discrimination against the poor. If the employers or the government had taken care of them, they would not have faced this tragic death,” Bishop Almeida said.
Father Maria Stephen, public relations officer of the Church in Madhya Pradesh, said such accidents are “a blot on our democracy. They undertook such a journey on foot because they were poor.”
On April 21, two migrant workers died on a railway track in Chhattisgarh state’s Koriya district after being hit by a freight train. They were walking back to their home villages in Surajpur district in Chhattisgarh state. The state had failed to arrange transport for migrants.
All public transport, including train, bus and air services, have been suspended since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a lockdown with only four hours' notice on March 24. The government ran some special trains and buses to take migrants back to their homes, but that move helped only an estimated 20,000 people.
In many places, migrant workers defied a curfew to stage protests demanding public transport to return to their homes.