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Trains Resume for Indian Migrant Workers Amid Protests, Deaths

This story was originally published May 8, 2020 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

An Indian state resumed train services on Friday to take migrant workers home after protests over growing distress of those stranded and reports of deaths among the thousands walking home having lost their jobs during the coronavirus lockdown.

Three special migrant trains were scheduled to leave the southern state of Karnataka two days after authorities cancelled services so that work on construction sites could restart, a move condemned as amounting to forced labor.

A migrant worker, who was stranded in the western state of Gujarat due to a lockdown imposed by the government to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), looks out from a window of a train that will take him to his home state.
A migrant worker, who was stranded in the western state of Gujarat due to a lockdown imposed by the government to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), looks out from a window of a train that will take him to his home state of Uttar Pradesh, in Ahmedabad, India, May 5, 2020. REUTERS/Amit Dave

At least two trains will leave every day for the next week to allow all migrant workers who have registered with authorities to return home, an official said, requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The resumption of services coincides with a fatal accident in western Maharashtra state where a train killed 14 migrant workers sleeping on a track while walking back to their villages after losing their jobs during the lockdown.

India's strict lockdown measures, such as severing transport links, have taken a toll on the nation's estimated 100 million migrant workers, triggering an exodus from cities where they worked in garment factories, building sites and brick kilns.

Across the nation of 1.3 billion people, local officials are collating migrant worker data from phone calls to welfare helplines and social media messages, as well as counting them by visiting makeshift camps where many of the workers live.

The government announced a $23 billion aid package to help the poor, including migrant workers.

But tens of thousands continue to walk back to their villages despite reassurances from officials, trekking thousands of miles in the scorching sun, on highways and across forests.

"The flip-flop of this magnitude, where trains are cancelled and restarted in 24 hours, gives no assurance to workers around which they can organize their lives," said Gayatri Menon, a sociology professor at the Azim Premji University in Bangalore. "The fact they continue to walk, some dying on the way, is indicative of a lack of trust in what authorities are saying."

With easing of lockdown restrictions and restarting of industries, states have been worried about the "reverse migration" of workers, with builders and manufacturers raising concerns about labor shortage.

Many states have asked workers to stay but some workers have been demanding that they be sent home. "A tragedy is unfolding before us," said Shamanna Reddy, president of the construction workers federation of Karnataka.

"But we have categorically told authorities that we will stand with workers and that the priority should be to let them go home," Reddy said. "They will come back only if we treat them well now and respect their wishes."

Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith.

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