May 29, 2020 12:15:45 am
A video clip of a toddler at Muzaffarpur railway station in Bihar tugging at a piece of cloth covering his dead mother, that went viral on Wednesday, frames a continuing tragedy. In the first week of May, the Indian Railways started Shramik Special trains to ferry back home migrant workers, who have waged a grim struggle for existence after their livelihoods dried up following the announcement of the nationwide lockdown on March 24. For large numbers of these workers, these journeys has been arduous. Trains have been delayed, and several have deviated from their routes. Nine people have died on their way back home in the Shramik Specials. Now the Supreme Court has taken cognisance of the matter. In an interim order passed on Thursday, a three-judge bench asked the states where the journey originates to provide food and water to passengers at the station. It asked the railways to provide the same during the journey.
Railway officials have claimed that the people who died on the special trains had been “battling many illnesses”. But, by all accounts, most state governments and the railways have given short shrift to arranging even the basic necessities on these special trains. A first-hand account published in this newspaper has highlighted the travails of the passengers who boarded the Surat-Warangal Shramik Special on May 23. All norms of social distancing were flouted during the bus ride to the railway station at Udhna. During the 10-hour train journey in the searing heat, food and water were in short supply, often leading to scuffles between the travellers. The passengers had to suffer the ignominy of food parcels and water bottles being hurled at them from across the platform when the train stopped at a station. The toilets were unusable for most of the journey.
The state governments and the Indian Railways must realise that facilitating the movement of the migrants is not an act of charity, it is their duty and responsibility. The workers have been forced to return to their villages because the urban areas in which their worksites are located do not offer them any semblance of social security. The journey back home shouldn’t be a continuation of the saga of indignity that began after the announcement of the lockdown. The humanitarian imperative of a safe and dignified journey for the worker cannot be overstated. The authorities in the states and at the Centre should also realise that the way the workers have been treated on their journey could further diminish their already shaken confidence in a system they are an essential part of. Passengers in the special trains must be provided with food and water and norms of social distancing must be observed — accountability must be enforced if this is not done.
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