Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal on Friday urged people to travel in Shramik Special trains “only when necessary”. His comments came after at least nine migrants died on board the special trains since Monday as a severe heatwave hit most of northern India.

“I appeal to people suffering from serious ailments, pregnant women and those above 65 years and below 10 years of age to travel only when necessary in Shramik trains,” he tweeted. “Railway parivaar is committed to ensuring safety of all passengers.”

In a statement, the Indian Railways said special trains were being run daily throughout the country to ensure that migrant workers were able to reach their homes. “It has been observed that some people who are availing this service have pre-existing medical conditions which aggravates the risk they face during the Covid-19 pandemic,” it added. “A few unfortunate cases of deaths related to pre-existing medical conditions while travelling have happened.”

The Railways sought cooperation from all passengers, saying safety was their biggest concern. “Indian railway parivaar is working 24x7 to ensure that rail services are provided to all the citizens of the country needing to travel,” it said. “In case of any distress or emergency please do not hesitate to reach out to your railway parivaar and we will help you as always [helpline number – 139 and 138].”

The Centre had started the special trains on May 1 to transport migrant workers back to their home states after they were stranded in different parts of the country during the coronavirus-induced lockdown from March 25. However, there have been reports of trains not only starting late, but also taking longer to reach their destinations. The Railways claimed the trains that were delayed by many hours taking unconventional routes, such as one from Mumbai to Gorakhpur that ended up in Odisha, were just involved in “route rationalisation”. Passengers have also complained about the lack of food and water on these trains.

Meanwhile, the Railways has maintained that the migrants who died on trains had pre-existing medical conditions. “In most of these cases, it is discovered that those who died are old sick people and chronic disease patients, who had actually gone to big cities for medical treatment and could come back only after the Railways started these special trains,” a spokesperson said.

NHRC notice on migrant deaths

On Thursday, the National Human Rights Commission issued notices to the Union Home Ministry, the Railway Board and the Bihar and Gujarat governments in connection with the deaths on special trains. The NHRC took suo motu cognisance of media reports that claimed that many migrant labourers lost their lives during their journey because of how long they were and due to the absence of arrangements for drinking water and food.

“The poor labourers cannot be treated in such an inhuman manner just because they are poor and the government has paid for their tickets,” it added. “Any shortcoming on the part of the government agencies cannot be covered under excuse of unprecedented situation amid countrywide lockdown.”

The NHRC said the state has failed to protect the lives of those who died. “The female labourers, old aged persons, ill persons, small children and specially abled persons are reportedly suffering a lot,” it added. “Many times the poor labourers have been told to go back as the trains got cancelled.”

A video of a child trying to wake up his dead mother at the Muzaffarpur railway station in Bihar was also widely shared on social media on Wednesday. It was the latest visual to emerge from the unprecedented humanitarian crisis of millions of migrant labourers affected by the nationwide lockdown to tackle the coronavirus outbreak in India.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Railways and the state governments cannot charge train or bus fares from stranded migrant workers waiting to return home. It observed that there were several problems in the process of registration, transportation and providing water and food to the migrants.

Also read:

  1. As Shramik trains remain shrouded in secrecy, agents are cheating desperate migrant workers
  2. With no relief in sight, unrest grows among migrant workers trapped in cities