Tens of thousands of people have been walking home from big cities after being laid off because of the lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus since late March. The driver tried to stop the freight train when he saw the workers on the tracks near Aurangabad town in Maharashtra, the railway ministry said, adding it had ordered an inquiry.
Sixteen people were killed and two injured, the state government said in a statement. Small bundles of food, footwear and other belongings were scattered on the tracks after the accident.
“I have just heard the sad news about labourers coming under the train, rescue work is underway,” Railway Minister Piyush Goyal said on Twitter. Under the lockdown, all public transport has been suspended so migrant workers heading home often have to walk long distances to get there.
The government has extended the lockdown until May 17.
Police said the labourers worked for a steel company and had begun walking towards their village in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh hundreds of kilometres away, hoping to get a lift from a passing truck.
One of the survivors, Virender Singh, said they had set off on the journey home after waiting for weeks for their contractor to bail them out with a bit of cash. “Our families in the village were asking us to come back,” he said.
They started walking along railway tracks on Thursday evening and were exhausted after covering nearly 40 km (25 miles) and so stopped, Singh said.
“It seems they were sleeping on the tracks,” C H Rakesh, chief public relations officer, south central railway told Reuters.
India’s eight-week long lockdown, one of the world’s most stringent, has helped contain coronavirus, officials say, but it has hit the poor hard. Criticism has mounted about how Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has arranged planes to bring back Indians from overseas, while leaving labourers stranded in big cities with little food or cash.