Visuals of migrant workers walking miles towards their homes, with some of them dying in accidents or of exhaustion, have made headlines since March, when the Narendra Modi government imposed the first phase of lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic in India.
While the government announced special trains for workers after weeks of trauma, the process to board one has been never-ending for many workers, with limited seats and long waiting lists to contend with.
However, it is now clear that the workers’ woes don’t end with getting a seat on a train. Delayed and diverted Shramik Special trains have left workers across the country in miserable situations, with news reports saying that some travellers have collapsed or died due to lack of food and water.
Vijay Kumar, who was on the Shramik Special from Maharashtra’s Vasai Road to Gorakhpur, told PTI that it was a journey that he will never forget.
The train from Maharashtra’s Vasai Road to Gorakhpur was diverted to Odisha’s Rourkela. A journey that was supposed to be 25 hours, lasted for two-and-a-half days. It left from Vasai on Thursday and finally reached Gorakhpur on Sunday.
Kumar’s fellow traveller Suraj Gupta, from Sahjanwa in Gorakhpur, described it as a horror journey to PTI.
While the railways said this was not a “goof up”, there has been no explanation as to why passengers were not informed of this change.
The incident caused an uproar after initial reports claimed the train driver had lost his way. The government then clarified that the train was diverted because most of the Shramik Special trains were bound towards eastern states, leading to congestion on the tracks.
There have also been unverified reports that 40 trains ferrying migrants have been lost. The Press Information Bureau did a “fact check”, saying, “This is INCORRECT. Trains have not been lost. Congestion due to 80% Shramik spl trains going to UP & Bihar. Thus, trains diverted to reach destinations by other feasible routes as per practice followed in regular ops.”
There was no clarification on whether the number of trains mentioned in the reports was accurate or not.
The railways, according to The Indian Express, said that these diversions could not be termed thus, claiming instead that these were “rationalised routes” to avoid congestion, so that the trains were not held up for hours.
The route diversions have meant that train rides meant to last a few hours or a couple of days have been stretched without notice, leaving passengers without adequate food and water during a heatwave.
There are reports of at least two children having died on these trains because of lack of amenities.
Mohammad Irshad, a four-year-old on a train from Patna to Delhi died after the train took 39 hours to reach its destination instead of 15 hours, The Telegraph reported.
The paper quoted Irshad’s father Pintu Alam as saying, “My son was crying due to hunger and was asking for food. But there was nothing we could provide. We had some money but no shop was open at railway stations along the route.”
The report said that a one-month-old on a train to Gorakhpur died on Monday and a 46-year-old died on a Shramik Special to Jaunpur.
The Telegraph, which has been following the issue closely, said in another report that a 10-month-old died after the Railways failed to send a doctor.
The report said that the baby, Raunak, had a fever and breathing problem, and by the time a doctor arrived he died. The death was reported on Monday, two days after the baby died because the family was dragged off the train on the suspicion the baby died of Covid-19.
Scroll.in reported on Wednesday that close to a thousand migrant workers travelling from Goa to the northeastern states underwent a horrific experience, with no food and water to drink.
″...By evening Edwin calls to say the bathrooms have no water and the toilets are clogged. The water we had provided is being used for toilet purposes,” wrote Nandita Haksar, a human rights lawyer and author who helped the workers. The train finally reached Jiribam in Manipur on 26 May, two-and-a-half-days late.