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Police inspecting the site where a freight train killed 16 migrant workers in Maharashtra state, India. Police inspecting the site where a freight train killed 16 migrant workers in Maharashtra state, India.  (AFP or licensors)

Indian Church: tragic train accident exposes migrant workers' despair

A freight train ran over migrant workers sleeping on the track on Friday, crushing 16 of them to death. Local Church officials say the accident shows the desperate situation and misery of millions in the country.

By Robin Gomes

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 rest with critical injuries.

The group was walking back home as no public transport was available due to the Covid-19 lockdown. The Railway Ministry explained that the group was exhausted after walking about 36 kilometres and sat on the track to take some rest and gradually fell into deep sleep. 

Jobless and desperate

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. Thousands of migrant workers who lost their jobs were suddenly left stranded on the road without money, food and transport to return home.

“It is shocking and beyond our comprehension,” said Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh state. All those killed were from the area covered by his diocese. They were walking from Jalna town towards their homes in Aurangabad city and beyond.

Officials said they were not allowed to travel to Aurangabad, which has been declared a Covid-19 red zone. They chose the railway line to walk on during the night to avoid police. Their destinations were 150 to 850 kilometres 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 Railway Ministry said the driver of the cargo train tried but failed to stop in time.  

Plight of India’s poor

 “People are sad and worried,” said Father Jose Antony, a diocesan priest working in Shahdol district, which was the destination of nine of the victims. He said “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, which closed because of 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 per cent of its 1.2 billion people. But experts in migrant issues say the numbers are grossly underestimated. At least half of the migrants are unskilled and unorganized workers who have no job security.

Millions remain stranded and hungry, Bishop Almeida 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 during the lockdown, he said.

The accident, he explained, 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,” the bishop said.

Father Maria Stephen, public relations officer of the Council of Bishops of Madhya Pradesh (CBMP), 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 walking home died on a railway track in Chhattisgarh state’s Koriya district after being hit by a freight train.

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.

The Indian Railways announced on Sunday that it will gradually restart passenger trains from Tuesday. But with a series of guidelines, such as online ticket booking only and downloading the COVID-19 tracking mobile application, many of these poor stranded migrants will not be able to make it.   (Source: UCANEWS)

11 May 2020, 14:12