Death of migrants on trains provided to bring them home aggravates crisis in India

Deaths of migrant workers on special trains meant to ferry them home sparks outrage in India.

The plight of migrants travelling on special trains is becoming starker with every passing day as at least 9 have died on account of heat, hunger and exhaustion in the past few days.

Migrant deaths on trains

However, a viral video of a toddler trying to wake up his dead mother at a railway station in northern Bihar on Monday caused widespread outrage, stirring the nation’s conscience.

It shows the child walking unsteadily up to his mother's body, tugging at the blanket placed over her, and when failing to wake her up, covering his own head with it.

“This mother died of hunger and thirst after being on a train for four days. Who is responsible for these deaths on trains?” Sanjay Yadav, a political worker from Bihar told RFI.

The deaths of vulnerable workers, who have braved the heat and humidity has raised disturbing questions not only on the efficiency of India railways but also on whether the trains have addressed the crisis that has unfolded during the lockdown.

Railway authorities, however, played down the matter and insisted the deaths on the trains were “coincidental” and all the workers had histories of medical illnesses.

“These workers were old and sick earlier and had actually gone to big cities for medical treatment and could come back only after the trains started," a railway spokesperson told RFI.

Reports of the predicament of migrants and the pressure by opposition political parties pushed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to run special worker trains to take migrants home.

But all has not been smooth so far. Migrants reportedly have to endure tedious paperwork, COVID-19 screening, and standing in long lines in the searing summer heat.

Last week, two women migrant workers gave birth while travelling to the eastern state of Odisha in separate trains.

“This is absolute callousness. The government has abdicated its constitutional role and duty to these teeming millions of poor, hungry migrants,” Manish Kumar, a lawyer told RFI.

The special trains were started on May Day and meant to be a gift to laborers to go home from the big cities after being cooped up in small cramped tenements or on the pavements, without any employment or livelihood.

But it has been far from a smooth run as the Railways is scrambling to explain inordinate delays in running the migrant trains, rerouting of several trains from their usual path and shortage of food and water on board.

An epic crisis

India’ Supreme Court finally weighed in on the matter on Thursday after there was a national outrage and passed directions saying no fare for travel either by train or bus should be charged from migrant workers. It further ordered that food and water should be provided to passengers.

Experts maintain the Railways, which used to operate over 12,000 passenger trains a day, is struggling to run 250 specials a day. Till Wednesday, the national carrier had run over 3600 special trains ferrying nearly 4.8 million workers.

More than 100 million migrant workers, who work in the unorganized sector, have been rendered jobless due to the strict lockdown imposed on March 25 by Modi to check the spread of the virus.

Their crisis is evident even till date as thousands are still stranded on roads, at railway stations and state borders. Many migrants have opted to take the road, by illegal transport or by foot to reach home.