Indian train kills 16 workers laid-off in coronavirus lockdown

SATARA (Reuters): An Indian train killed 16 migrant workers who had fallen asleep on the track on Friday while they were heading back to their home village after losing their jobs in a coronavirus lockdown, police said.

Tens of thousands of people have been walking home from India’s big cities after being laid off because of the lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus since late March.

The driver tried to stop the freight train when he saw the workers on the tracks near Aurangabad town in the western state of Maharashtra, the railway ministry said, adding it had ordered an inquiry.

Sixteen people were killed and two injured, the state government said in a statement. Small bundles of food, footwear and other belongings were scattered on the tracks after the accident.

“I have just heard the sad news about laborers coming under the train, rescue work is underway,” Railway Minister Piyush Goyal said on Twitter.

Under the lockdown, all public transport has been suspended so migrant workers heading home often have to walk long distances to get there.

The government has extended the lockdown until May 17. Police said the laborers worked for a steel company and had begun walking toward their village in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh hundreds of kilometers away, hoping to get a lift from a passing truck.

One of the survivors, Virender Singh, said they had set off on the journey home after waiting for weeks for their contractor to bail them out with a bit of cash. “Our families in the village were asking us to come back,” he said.

They started walking along railway tracks on Thursday evening and were exhausted after covering nearly 40 km (25 miles) and so stopped, Singh said.

“It seems they were sleeping on the tracks,” C.H. Rakesh, chief public relation officer, south central railway told Reuters. India’s eight-week long lockdown, one of the world’s most stringent, has helped contain the coronavirus, officials say, but it has hit the poor hard.

Criticism has mounted about how Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has arranged planes to bring back Indians from overseas, while leaving laborers stranded in big cities with little food or cash.

Modi said on Twitter he was anguished by the loss of lives in the train accident and all possible assistance was being provided.

“Shocked by the deaths of migrant workers hit by train. We should be ashamed of how we treat our nation-builders,” said Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party.

Over the past week, some state governments facing public pressure organized trains and buses to bring back migrant laborers.

But many are trudging great distances in the blistering heat through fields and forests to get home.

Following the accident, the Maharashtra state government asked the railways to operate a few trains to take stranded migrant workers home, its chief minister, Uddhav Thackeray, said.