At least 25 migrant workers were killed and 40 others were injured when a trailer and a stationary truck on which they had hitched rides collided on a highway near Auraiya in the early hours of Saturday, the latest in a string of accidents involving migrants returning to their states amid the coronavirus lockdown.
Most of the victims were sitting on sacks of wheat flour loaded on the trailer, and were crushed when the vehicles overturned and fell into a ditch following the crash near an eatery between 3 AM and 3.30 AM on the Auraiya-Kanpur Dehat stretch of National Highway 19, police said.
While many of the workers were from Jharkhand and West Bengal, some were from Kushinagar in eastern Uttar Pradesh, they said.
"The trailer hit the stationary truck near a dhaba (roadside eatery). The trailer was carrying bags of wheat flour, and most of the labourers were seated on these bags.
"In the accident, most of the labourers were crushed under these bags, and died. Some of them succumbed to injuries on the way to hospital," District Magistrate Abhishek Singh said, adding all the deceased were men.
The truck, which was going from Delhi to Madhya Pradesh, had stopped at the eatery as some workers wanted to have tea. It was carrying around 22 people, including five women and seven children, officials said.
The trailer with 43 migrants was coming from Rajasthan, they said.
Both were ferrying people who found themselves without jobs, money or food during the lockdown and were desperate to get back home.
While 25 people have died, 15 seriously injured have been admitted to a hospital in Saifai in Etawah district. The rest have been hospitalised in Auraiya, about 400 km from New Delhi and 200 km from the state capital, officials said.
President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath expressed deep sadness over the loss of lives and said the administration was making all efforts to provide relief to the affected.
The opposition Congress and the Samajwadi Party hit out at the Bharatiya Janata Party government, saying it was not an accident but a "murder", and asked why it was not making adequate arrangements for the migrant labourers.
The state government announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh to the kin of each deceased, and Rs 50,000 to the seriously injured. It also directed the district magistrates in border districts to strictly comply with the order on providing buses to migrants.
"The chief minister has reiterated that directions have been given to all the border areas to ensure that no person travels by unsafe means like trucks.
"Directions have already been issued to keep 200 buses under the disposal of district magistrates in every district of border areas. Funds have been approved to send the labourers by buses. Hence, the district magistrates must strictly comply with these orders," a statement from the government said.
The SHOs of two police stations have been suspended, and a stern warning has been issued to the circle officers, Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Awanish Awasthi said.
Director General of Police H C Awasthy said steps are being taken to ensure that people pass through the state in a safe manner, and such unfortunate incidents do not take place in future.
"Directions have already been issued to run more trains from point to point, and trains are running in large numbers. However, the number of people who are moving is huge," he said.
"Around 10,000 buses too have been pressed into service. Every possible effort is being made, but how this unfortunate incident took place is being probed," he said.
The top cop also clarified that movement by two-wheelers, three-wheelers and private vehicles has been completely stopped.
The DGP also mentioned that it was a "challenging situation" at the UP border due to the large number of people entering the state.
"We are making efforts to help them reach their homes safely, but the number of people entering the state is huge," he said.
BJP president J P Nadda, Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also expressed grief over the incident.
In a tweet, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav expressed sorrow over the deaths and slammed the UP government.
"Let's see for how long those heartless people and their supporters would justify this negligence despite knowing everything. These are not deaths but murders," he said.
Bahujan Samaj Party president Mayawati asked Chief Minister Adityanath to ensure that his directives on the safety of stranded labourers returning home are implemented.
She asked the parties in power at the Centre and in different states "to rise above petty politics in this hour of crisis and ensure the safety of the migrants trying to make their way home amid the coronavirus-forced lockdown".
"Politics in the name of migrant labourers is not right," she said.
Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said the accident has again raised the question as to why the government is not facilitating the migrant labourers' journey to their home.
"Auraiya's heart-rending incident has once again raised the question that why is the government not making proper arrangements for the migrant labourers to go home? Why are buses not being run in the states to take labourers home?" Gandhi said in a tweet.
Either the government is unable to see anything or it is seeing everything and is acting as if it does not know, the Congress general secretary in-charge of UP East said.
Is the government's job only to make statements, she asked.
UP Congress chief Ajay Kumar 'Lallu' said that it was "not an accident, but murder."
"The chief minister should resign. This government is insensitive towards the (plight of) migrant labourers," he said.
The chief minister, according to a statement released by the state government, directed the divisional commissioner and IG Kanpur to visit the site and give a report on the cause of the accident immediately.
Local villagers assisted the police and the administration in the rescue operation.
Prof Raj Kumar, Vice-Chancellor, UP University of Medical Sciences Saifai said, "The injured have been kept at a COVID-19 hospital (in the university) and specialist doctors are monitoring them."
The opposition has been critical of the Centre's handling of the situation, accusing it of not doing enough to ease the hardships of the migrant workers, many of whom have lost their jobs during the lockdown which started on March 25.
These people have been desperate to reach their native places, but with public transport suspended and movement restricted, many have resorted to walking or using whatever private vehicles are available, facing immense hardships and even risking their lives.
Though special trains and buses are being run, a large number of people have not been able to avail the facilities and accidents involving migrants on the move are being reported daily from various states.
Five migrant workers going to Uttar Pradesh from Maharashtra were killed and 19 others injured when a truck carrying them overturned on Sagar-Kanpur Road in Madhya Pradesh on Saturday morning.
On May 8, sixteen workers, who were walking back home to MP, were mowed down by a goods train in Aurangabad after they fell asleep on railway tracks, prompting the Maharashtra government to announce free bus service till borders of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh for the migrants.