New Delhi: Amid the lockdown, 16 migrant workers were killed when a freight train ran over them while they were sleeping on the tracks in Maharashtra's Aurangabad on Friday morning.
In the absence of the transportation facility, the poor, hapless migrants were walking from Jalna to Bhusaval, 157 km apart.
Though the Maharashtra government has announced ex-gratia for the victims, the Indian Railways is yet to budge since the mishap is being termed as "trespassing".
There are many such trespassing cases in the suburban section of the Mumbai division and, according to the Railways, it is not bound to pay ex-gratia in case of those trespassing on the tracks.
According to a senior Railway Ministry official, the national transporter does not consider accidents that happen due to external factors as ‘railway accidents’ and hence is not bound to provide ex-gratia relief to the victim’s families.
“It is provided only in accidents where the Railwaysis involved, such as derailment of trains or collision etc. In this ‘trespassing’ case, states and the Centre are likely to provide relief," the official said.
While the Railways do not treat these incidents as "railway accidents" and terms run over cases as "trespassing", there have been instances in the past where it has offered ex-gratia to the next of kin of a victim on sympathetic grounds.
In the 2017 Elphinstone bridge collapse incident, in which 23 people were killed and 39 injured in Mumbai, the Railways had given ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh to the next of kin of those killed in the incident, Rs 1 lakh for those seriously injured and Rs 50,000 to people who suffered simple injuries.
Even though the Railways consider the incident as ‘trespassing’, the Commissioner, Railway Safety, (CRS) has taken note of the accident and has written to the Chairman, Railway Board, advising adequate caution to prevent such mishaps in future.
The Commission of Railway Safety, which investigates all serious rail accidents clears, commissioning of new rolling stock for operation, also said that now that such an incident of migrant or other persons walking along the tracks leading to consequent deaths have come to notice, all-out efforts must be made to prevent recurrence of such incidents.
"Under such circumstances, as an abundant precaution, it is essential that all Railway personnel connected with train operation, maintenance and patrolling maintenance and patrolling activities should be cautioned to immediately communicate any such occurrence of persons walking along the track, if noticed by them, to the nearest station so that necessary action, like Caution Order to all passing trains (can be taken)," CRS has said.
CRS has further said "It is requested to immediately issue suitable directions to all Zonal Railways to avoid recurrence of such unfortunate incidents in future."
After CRS intervention, the Railways’ safety directorate has woken up and is planning to write letters to Chief Security Officers of all its zones asking them to do the needful in the lockdown condition.
According to reports, these migrants were not aware of the freight operation in the lockdown and, perhaps,did not realise the dangers of the running train.
Meanwhile, the Railways have ordered a probe under Ram Kripal, CRS, South Central Circle, who will hold an independent inquiry into the accident. The probe will look into the role of patrol men who are tasked with keeping trespassers away from tracks and also alert the nearest station about any incident.
According to the Aurangabad police authorities and Railway officials at the Nanded division of South Central Railway, 14 persons were killed on the spot, while two died of their injuries on their way to hospital.
All were the deceased migrants were aged between 20 and 30 years and hailed from Umaria and Shahdol districts of Madhya Pradesh. They were working at a steel firm in the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation zone in Jalna district.
The police said the migrants probably chose to walk on the tracks to avoid the highway, where they risked getting stopped. They are likely to have assumed that trains were not running due to the coronavirus lockdown. They were run over by the passing goods train at 5.15 a.m on Friday.
The Railways Ministry said the loco pilot driving the freight train had tried to warn the labourers on the track by honking. He also tried to stop the train after spotting the men, the ministry further said.
Incidentally, the average speed of goods trains which is normally around 24 km per hour, has also more than doubled during the lockdown period as the suspension of passenger trains has decongested the rail network.
The Maharashtra Chief Minister’s Office has already announced an ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh each to the families of those who were killed in the Aurangabad train accident.
However, Opposition parties alleged the Centre’s transport policy of providing buses and trains to transport migrant workers during the Covid-19 lockdown was poorly designed.
Friday’s tragedy could have been averted had there been a proper planning prior to the lockdown, facilitating migrant workers to return their homes.
The writer is a freelance journalist, who has widely covered the Indian Railways.