The migrant workers, rendered jobless due to the lockdown and desperate to go to their native places, were walking along the rail tracks apparently to escape the attention of police.
A goods train ran over a group of migrant workers who fell asleep on the rail tracks on Friday killing 16 of them in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, in a tragedy that highlighted the plight of thousands of labourers hit by coronavirus lockdown walking long distances back to their native states.
Aurangabad district police chief Mokshada Patil said that three of the four survivors from the group of 20 men returning to their home state of Madhya Pradesh tried in vain to wake up their colleagues who had slept on the track after a overnight walk from Jalna, around 40 km from the site of the accident.
The railways announced a comprehensive probe into the accident which occurred at 5.15 am near Karmad, around 30 km from Aurangabad city.
As reports of anxious migrant workers demanding transport facility to return to their home state came from several parts of the country, several states pressed for deployment of more ‘Shramik Special' trains to ferry lakhs of labourers.
A video clip from the accident scene in Karmad that has gone viral showed the bodies of workers lying on the tracks and nearby with their meagre personal belongings scattered around.
Pieces of roti were found strewn near the tracks.
The victims, aged between 20 and 35 years, hailed from Umaria and Shahdol districts of MP and were working in a steel factory in Jalna, police said.
In a statement, the South Central railway said the train driver had seen the sleeping men and had even tried to alert them up by honking but failed to save their lives.
The migrant workers, rendered jobless due to the lockdown and desperate to go to their native places, left Jalna on Thursday night and were walking along the rail tracks apparently to escape the attention of police.
The workers, who were headed to Bhusawal in MP, came till Karmad and fell asleep on the rail tracks due to exhaustion when they were run over by the goods train coming from the Jalna side, an official at the Karmad police station said.
Three of the four survivors were sleeping some distance away from the rail tracks, he said.
"I had a word with the survivors. They started walking from Jalna on Thursday night and tried to reach Bhusaval,” Mokshada Patil said.
Bhusawal is about 180 km from the accident site.
"Out of the 20 people, 16 died, one is injured and three are with us. A case will be registered at the Karmad police station,"she said
Jalna SP S Chaitanya said the migrant labourers had left without informing their employer or the local administration.
Hours after the accident, the railways took to social media, urging people not to squat, walk or indulge in any activity on the tracks.
Chief Commissioner of Railway Safety Shailesh Pathak also wrote to the Railway Board Chairman, calling for abundant caution and requesting him to issue instructions to ensure that such accidents do not recur.
Due to the lack of congestion on their routes, the average speed of freight trains have increased by 66 per cent during the lockdown.
Despite the railways running migrant special trains since May 1 and ferrying almost three lakh migrants since then in more than 251 trains, many of them have started their journey home on foot or bicycle, as they apparently could not wait for their turn any longer due to lack of food and employment.
According to a report by SaveLIFE Foundation, about 140 lives were lost in over 600 road accidents over the course of the two phases of the nationwide lockdown between March 25 and May 3.
Of this count, 30 per cent of the victims were migrant workers returning to their homes, it said.
Terming the death of migrants as "painful", Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar urged the labourers to have patience and not undertake risky journeys to their home states.
Pawar, who is also the state's finance minister, said the state government was working on a war footing to send migrant workers to their native states and this was being done with the cooperation from the Centre and other state governments.
The MP government sought 25 additional trains from the Railways to bring back migrant labourers of the state from other parts of the country, a senior official said.
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath asked officials to reach out to their counterparts in other states for better coordination in bringing the migrants home and urged the workers to not walk or cycle to the state as this could endanger their health and security.
Flouting lockdown norms, nearly 2,000 migrant workers gathered at a government office in the Gota area in Ahmedabad hoping they will somehow find a way to reach their native places, police said.
The gathering, which started since the morning, was apparently triggered by a rumour about a bus reaching outside the government office to ferry migrants to railway station.
In Karnataka, over 700 migrant workers belonging to northern states staged a protest in front of the central railway station in Mangaluru demanding that arrangements be made for them to return to home towns.
The crowding of workers at the railway station is learnt to be prompted by a social media post which went viral giving false information that free special trains have been arranged for workers, sources said.
Hundreds of migrant labourers at a construction work site in Bengaluru claimed they are being kept confined at the place and appealed to the government to send them back to their native places.
In a related incident, at least 22 migrant labourers, who had returned from Andhra Pradesh, escaped from a COVID-19 quarantine centre in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district, police said.
The labourers escaped from a quarantine facility in Dantewada late on Thursday evening and a search was launched to trace them, Dantewada superintendent of police Abhishek Pallava said.
The Noida Police also busted an illegal bus service for duping people on the pretext of being a free transportation service of the Bihar government for migrant workers stranded in the Delhi-NCR (National Capital Region) due to the lockdown, an official said.
Two men were arrested and two privately-operated buses impounded during the police action around 1.30 am on a Noida-Greater Noida road, the official said.
The accused had stationed the two buses bearing banners that read 'Free bus service for migrant labourers by Bihar government'.
"The passengers told the officials they got onto the bus thinking it was a free service but were being charged Rs 3,000 per passenger," the police said.
The National Human Rights Commission also issued notices to the Maharashtra chief secretary and the district magistrate of Aurangabad over the accident involving the migrant workers.
The accident sparked attacks against the Centre from the Congress which alleged the policy of providing buses and trains to transport migrant workers was poorly designed, coordinated and implemented.
“After announcements of buses and trains, why are thousands still forced to walk back to their villages?" asked senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
"The tragedy that happened this morning could have been avoided if governments had gone to the rescue of the migrant workers in time,”said another Congress leader P Chidambaram.
Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati said the death of the migrant labourers was a result of the "insensitive attitude" of the Centre and the Maharashtra government and demanded better arrangements be made for workers returning home.