“We had registered two-three days ago (for the special trains to go back home), but didn’t get called. Ghar par bhi kaam tha, toh kya karte, nikal gaye (We were needed at home, so we left,” said 25-year old Shivbhan Singh.
That is why, after weeks of waiting out the nationwide lockdown, the group of 20 decided to walk the 850-km journey from their steel factories in Jalna to their homes across the border in Umariya and Shahdol districts of Madhya Pradesh. Shivbhan was one of four in the group who escaped unhurt while 16 of his travel companions were mowed down by an empty freight train in Aurangabad district early Friday morning.
The group from MP had been waiting to return home, much like the thousands of migrants during the lockdown. “Our contractor tried to stop us and said the factory will start in some time, but my kachcha ghar back in the village needed fixing. I had to return,” he said.
After convincing their contractor to allow them to leave, the group packed some rotis and chutney for the journey ahead and, around 7 pm on Thursday, set out from Jalna. Shivbhan said they had covered about 40 km on a narrow interior road when, at a place called Badnapur, they spotted railway tracks and They slept on tracks, confident no trains would run started walking on those.
The survivors and officials said the group was heading Bhusaval, 350 km from the accident site, from where they were confident of getting some transport into Madhya Pradesh. They were only 25 km from Aurangabad, from where a train was to leave for Madhya Pradesh on Friday evening, but the group did not know about that.
As the night progressed, around 3.30 am, the exhausted group decided to rest for the night. Singh, along with Briandra Singh and Indalal, were lagging 200 metres behind the group and slept on the ground near the tracks, while the 17 who were ahead decided to lie down on the tracks.
Railway officers said 14 of them seemed to have slept on the sleepers, even resting their heads on the rail, while the remaining three slept close to the tracks. The group, they said, must have been confident in the belief that it was safe to do so because passenger train services had been suspended as part of the lockdown.
“We could not see them clearly but they switched on their mobile torch lights to signal to us that they were resting there,” said Shivbhan.
Meanwhile, piloting the empty goods train from Cheralapally in Hyderabad on his way to Paniwada in Manmad in Maharashtra, loco pilot Ramashish Kumar was running between Badnapur and Karmad railway stations when he spotted some obstruction on the tracks, said Railway officials, adding that it was only when the train got to 160 metres from the “obstruction” that Ramashish realised that there were people on the tracks.
According to Divisional Railway Manager for Nanded, Upendra Singh, as soon as the loco pilot realised that there were men on the tracks, he applied emergency brakes, pressing the hooter to give out a whistle. “The train was moving at a speed of 70 kmph,” said Singh, and by the time it came to a halt, it was too late.
Up ahead, Indalal, Shivbhan and Birandar Singh, lying outside the tracks, woke up to the shrill sound of the train’s hooter piercing though the night. “Before I could wake up fully, it was all over,” said Indalal.
The train mowed down the 14 men who were sleeping on the tracks. Two others sleeping right next to the tracks were injured grievously and died in hospital. Sajan Singh, who too was sleeping close to the tracks, managed to jump out of the train’s way, but his bag came under the wheels of the train. He has injuries to his knees and back.
The train’s long hooter alerted people in the nearby Satna village, who rushed to the spot as the loco pilot informed the railway control room.
Those who survived were rushed to the civic hospital in Aurangabad, where a postmortem procedure was conducted, while an accidental death report was registered at the Karmad police station. Railways have ordered an inquiry into the incident by Commissioner of Railway Safety.
Additional Superintended of Police Ganesh Gawde said bodies of the 16 victims, along with two of the survivors, would be sent back to Madhya Pradesh. “Of the other two, Sajan Singh is in hospital and Birandar Singh is staying back with him.”
While Shivbhan and the other survivors said they had registered for the special trains, Madhya Pradesh Additional Chief Secretary ICP Keshari told The Indian Express that the workers had not registered for a spot on any of the special trains, neither in Madhya Pradesh nor in Maharashtra. Keshari said the migrants decided to head home after an argument with the labour contractor, who wanted them to stay back and work in the factory that was to restart operations. Keshari said the contractor did not let the workers register with authorities.
A train that reached Bhopal on Friday had 170 workers from Jalna and another 70 from Jalna were set to leave for Jabalpur late Friday. The victims apparently did not know about either of the trains. The train will now carry 16 bodies to Jabalpur in a sealed compartment. From Jabalpur, the bodies will be taken to Shahdol and Umaria districts.