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Sixteen Indian migrant workers were hit by a freight train and killed Friday after falling asleep on the tracks while trying to make their way home during the coronavirus lockdown.
The accident underlines the brutal conditions faced by India’s migrant workers, millions of whom have been left stranded far from their home villages, with little or no means to support themselves, since the lockdown was hastily imposed on March 24. With the closure of businesses depriving them of income, millions have been making the journey from cities back to their home villages, often traveling long distances on foot.
News reports said the group of 20 people worked for a steel plant in Jalna district and had been making the 97-mile, 31-hour trip on foot from Jalna to Bhusawal, in the western state of Maharashtra. They planned to catch a train from there to their home villages.
Police said the group had made about 28 miles of the trip when they had gone to sleep exhausted on the tracks, likely assuming that trains wouldn’t be running due to the lockdown.
“They stopped after walking for about 45 kilometers for some rest and fell asleep on the tracks,” said Inspector Satish Khetmalas of Aurangabad rural police.
India’s Ministry of Railways said that the train driver had seen the group sleeping on the tracks but had been unable to stop the train in time.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he was “extremely anguished by the loss of lives” in the accident, while Rahul Gandhi, a lawmaker for the opposition Congress Party, tweeted that the tragedy was an indictment on the treatment of migrant workers.
“We should be ashamed of how we treat our nation-builders,” he said.
Much of the country’s transport links have been shut down due to the lockdown, although some states have begun organizing train and bus services to return migrant workers to their home villages during the past week. Last week the Indian government extended the lockdown to May 17, while relaxing restrictions in less affected areas.
The accident came in the wake of a massive toxic gas leak at a chemical plant in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh early Thursday, which killed at least 11 people, led to 800 others being hospitalized and forced the evacuation of thousands of people from surrounding areas.
The leak at the plant in the city of Visakhapatnam, owned by a subsidiary of South Korean company LG Chem, occurred early on Thursday morning as the facility was being reopened for the first time since the lockdown began. Indian police have filed charges of culpable homicide and neglect against the plant’s managers, according to reports.
Cover: Children of migrant laborers rest after arriving from Gujarat state on a train to their home state of Uttar Pradesh in Prayagraj, India, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. India is running train service for thousands of migrant workers desperate to return home since it imposed a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)