Nearly 80 migrant workers died of starvation or heat sickness between May 9 and May 27 while travelling on special trains to their home villages amid the lockdown to contain the coronavirus, according to the data from the Railway Protection Force reviewed by Hindustan Times.

Out of these, 18 deaths occurred in the North Eastern Railway zone, 19 in North Central zone and 13 in East Coast Railway zone. Nearly 80% of the special trains falling in these zones were destined for Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Some of those who died were as young as 4-years-old. The list also mentions the co-morbidities or accidents that caused the deaths in a few cases. But the data between May 1 and May 8 was not available.

An unidentified official from the Railway Protection Force confirmed the numbers to the newspaper, adding that an initial list has been compiled and the final one will be issued after coordinating with the states. A spokesperson of the Ministry of Railways, however, refused to comment on the data, saying that the chairperson of the Railway Board had already responded to the query on Friday.

At least at nine deaths in the past week on the trains, including a 35-year-old woman who was found in Muzaffarpur in Bihar state, have been reported. A video of her body lying in the train station with her toddler trying to wake her up was widely shared on social media. On Friday, railway officials found the body of a migrant labourer lying in a toilet of a train in Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh.

But the railways ministry claimed that only a “few unfortunate cases of deaths related to pre-existing medical conditions while travelling have happened”.

There have been several reports of migrant workers not being given food and water on long train journeys in the searing heat. Workers complain about the squalid conditions of travel and inordinate delays in train schedules. Many alleged that they were not given anything to eat or drink during the journey, while others claimed they were fed rotten food.

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Railway Board Chairman Vinod Kumar Yadav said more than 50 lakh migrant workers and their families were transported this month from cities and towns to their home villages on 3,840 trains. He said 80% returned to two states, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Yadav denied reports of food and water shortages on the trains. He declined to specify how many people had died, but said health authorities are investigating the causes. “Some deaths occurred and we are compiling the figures... we will issue the figures in a few days,” he said. However, an unidentified zonal railway officer confirmed that heat, exhaustion and thirst were the primary causes of death of passengers.

A nationwide coronavirus lockdown imposed by the government on March 25 caused many poor migrant workers in cities to lose their jobs. Many made gruelling and dangerous trips back to their hometowns, with most public transport including trains halted under the lockdown. More than 170 workers have been killed in accidents on the roads or train tracks. Many others died from the exhaustion of walking in the scorching heat. The government began arranging special trains on May 1 to take migrants home.