Migrants’ deaths on the tracks a wake-up call for India3 min read . Updated: 08 May 2020, 11:55 PM IST
16 migrants sleeping on a railway track were mowed down by a goods train in Maharashtra on Friday morning
More than any other incident in over 40 days of a lockdown that is reputedly the world’s most stringent, it was the mowing down of 16 migrants sleeping on a rail track in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, on Friday that encapsulated the human tragedy unleashed by the covid-19 pandemic.
The migrants, who had walked 36km on the first stretch of what would have been their journey home to Madhya Pradesh, had fallen asleep on the rail track, tired. A goods train ploughed through them at daybreak.
The covid-19 pandemic has hit the poor the hardest in India, with locked factories and other workplaces triggering the biggest internal migration since Partition.
The question spawned by Friday’s tragedy is why it happened on the railway track.
Many of the migrants walking back to their home towns, without food or water, have been using railway tracks to navigate their way in the long and unbearable Indian summer. Often rail tracks are the shortest route home. Migrants have also been walking on and along them to avoid police brutality on the roads.
“These workers would have avoided walking on the roads out of fear of the police. Walking on the railway tracks and following the route is an easier option as they would not get lost and nobody will be able to identify them," said Thaneshwar Dayal Adigaur, secretary of Delhi Asangathit Nirman Mazdoor Union, a union of unorganized construction workers.
It is a common assumption that train routes are shorter than roads and highways, said a senior government official.
Following the tragedy, the railway ministry put out a tweet saying, “The general public is requested not to use the railway track for any activity, this can prove to be fatal. During the lockdown, only passenger trains are closed, but goods trains, covid-19 parcel special trains are in regular operation."
The tragedy shows that the Centre, state governments, and the local administrations have failed to instil confidence in migrant workers and make them feel safe in the cities, said Adigaur. The 16 who died on the tracks in Maharashtra worked in an iron company in Jalna and hoped to catch a special train for Madhya Pradesh.
Special trains carrying stranded migrant workers were flagged off from various stations on 1 May for the first time after the lockdown was enforced on 25 March. The Shramik Special trains are aimed at helping millions of migrant workers, pilgrims, tourists, students, and others stranded by the lockdown return home. However, many people who have not been able to board these trains are setting off on arduous journeys on foot.
More train routes and services are being drawn up on the basis of demand by state governments, with the clamour for special buses and trains from states growing after thousands of desperate migrants set off for their hometowns on foot. While a relaxation in the lockdown beginning 4 May will come as a relief to the millions of migrants stranded in the cities of their work, the move has not been without controversy. The migration has snowballed into a political issue amid chaotic scenes.
Some states are charging migrants for their train journeys, while some others had tried to bar them from going home.
The Karnataka government led by chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa of the Bharatiya Janata Party evoked public outrage when it withdrew its request to the railways to ferry migrants home. It then made a U-turn on Friday to lift the backdoor ban on migrant workers leaving the state.
“While migrant workers are desperate to go back to their hometowns, there is no clarity on the details of the migrants’ special trains started by the state and the central government," Adigaur said.
Migrants form the bulwark of India’s informal or gig economy. This is significant as more than 90% of India’s workforce is estimated to be in the informal sector in both rural and urban regions. According to the 2017-18 Economic Survey, 87% of firms, representing 21% of the total turnover, are purely informal, outside both the tax and social security nets.
The sudden lockdown announcement to prevent the spread of the pandemic caught these migrants unawares as they found it impossible to make ends meet in the absence of any safety net.
“I don’t understand why poor migrants have to walk hundreds of km to go to their villages. If one week’s notice of lockdown had been given, most migrant workers would have gone by trains to their states," said R. Kumar, who works at a Delhi-based NGO on migrant issues.