Representational image. | Image Courtesy: The Hindu
New Delhi, May 30: The hunger, exhaustion and lack of water in the non-AC coaches in the searing heat—besides a few chronic cases—have reportedly claimed about 80 lives onboard Shramik Special trains, a grim situation for the Railways which is facing the worst ever crisis in the recent time.
Though the list of passenger deaths in Shramik Specials is understood to have been prepared by the Railway Protection Force, RPF DG Arun Kumar told this reporter, “We are collecting figures from all states in coordination with the Government Railway Police. It would be released after compiling the list.”
However, the railways spokesperson maintained on Saturday that the "Railway Ministry has not released any list like this yet", when asked to clarify the reported deaths in Shramik Specials.
The body of a migrant labourer, who presumably died days ago, was found in the toilet of a Shramik Special train at Uttar Pradesh’s Jhansi railway station, late on Thursday. It was railway workers who discovered the body while sanitising the coaches.
While Railways Board Chairman VK Yadav was repeatedly asked in a presser on Friday about the reported deaths in these trains, he also did not give any figure.
Yadav said, "Anyone’s death is a big loss. Indian Railways has a control system where the train is immediately stopped if someone is found ill and they are sent to the nearest hospital to try and save their lives. Many such passengers were attended to and many deliveries also took place.”
“I can imagine the plight of the labourers travelling even in these conditions. In case of deaths, the local zones investigate the reason and without an investigation, there are allegations that they died of hunger when there was no shortage of food. Some deaths occurred and we are compiling the figures; we will issue the figures in a few days,” he said.
According to insiders, deaths have been reported from many zones. The recent past has also witnessed diversion and delays in a few Shramik trains causing much hardship to the hapless workers who have been struggling to return home in the lockdown.
Taking note of the grave crisis being faced by the stranded migrants, the National Human Rights Commission has also observed that the treatment of migrant workers by the railways borders on barbarism.
Government had failed to protect the lives of poor migrants onboard trains, it noted. The Shramik Special service, launched on May 1, has so far run nearly 4,000 trains carrying more than 52 lakh stranded passengers across the country.
Responding to the reports of death due to lack of food, water and heat, railways maintain that most of those who died were patients suffering from chronic illnesses who had gone for medical treatment and could come back only after these special trains were launched.
On Friday, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal also issued a statement appealing to the people suffering from ailments to avoid travel by Shramik Trains.
"I appeal to people suffering from serious ailments, pregnant women & those above 65 years and below 10 years of age to travel only when necessary in Shramik Trains. Railway Parivaar is committed to ensuring safety of all passengers," he tweeted.
According to insiders, the deaths have occurred after May 9 when the problem began to worsen with reports of heavy rush of passengers resulting in a crisis of food and water.
The crisis reached its peak with many trains diverted, causing delays in Shramik Special trains in the last week of May. The Railways had come under severe criticism over the delay and diversion of Shramik Trains amid reports of a Gorakhpur-bound Shramik Special from Maharashtra ending up in Rourkela.
Railways maintain that “only 71” trains were diverted between May 20 and 24 due to congestion, which is just 1.8% of the total trains run during the time. Since
80% of these trains were headed for Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it resulted in congestion of paths and railways had to divert these trains. Majority of Shramik trains are heading towards Gorakhpur, Jaunpur, Purnia and other cities in UP and Bihar.
There were many instances on record of passengers looting food and water bottles at the stations.
However, railways maintain that catering is being done by contractors and because of the corona scare, their staff are reluctant to do the job; so, railway employees have come forward to do it.
The hardship caused by diversions, delays and also lack of food has put the state-run transporter in a very awkward situation despite running nearly 4,000 Shramik Specials to evacuate lakhs of stranded passengers.
Arun Kumar Das is a Delhi-based journalist and can be contacted at [email protected]. The views are personal.
Also read: “The Fleeing Labourers are Caught in an Unusual Combination of Crises”