Asia Pacific

Lockdown darkens for India after train runs over sleeping migrants

Bloomberg

A freight train ran over and killed more than a dozen poor Indians, who were trying to walk back to their home state after the world’s most expansive virus lockdown left them unemployed.

As many as 20 people had walked for 36 kilometers (22 miles), following railway tracks to reach their native villages, according to a statement from the Indian Railways. Survivors told the authorities they were tired and fell into a deep sleep that saw them fail to notice the approaching train. Fourteen died and two were injured.

India’s lockdown — imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi March 25 with four hours notice — has hit the nation’s 400 million internal migrants the hardest. A vast majority of them labor on construction sites, operate factories, or clean homes in cities, contributing a combined 40 percent to national output but earning paltry wages and denied job security.

The victims of Thursday’s tragedy were trying to get from the western state of Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh. They were more than 800 kilometers from home when they died.

The disaster also highlights a slew of communication missteps by the federal and state governments. With almost all transport stopped under the lockdown, the stranded migrants were first denied the means to return home and then, when special trains were announced, they were asked to pay for their passage, sparking a political storm where the opposition party offered to compensate the laborers before Modi’s government said the fares would be subsidized.

According to think tank PRS Legislative Research, India’s federal government has issued almost 600 notifications and state governments a further 3,500 amid the lockdown, Mint newspaper reported.

Within this mass of circulars were orders to halt all passenger trains, but freight operations continued so that food and essential supplies could be transported across the country. However, having lost their jobs at the onset of the lockdown, millions of Indians have no money to pay for groceries amid the stay-at-home rules due to lift May 18.

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