Odisha train accident sheds light on plight of labourers leaving home for work
An official of the South Paraganas district, said, “At least a dozen people from the district have died and over 100 were injured in the Odisha train accident.”
On Sunday morning, in a small hut at Charankhali village, close to the Sunderbans delta in West Bengal’s South 24 Paraganas district, 65 year old Subhadra Guyen was inconsolable. Three of her sons- 51 year old Haran, 40 year old Nishikanta and 33 year old Dibakar- were all traveling in the ill fated Coromandel Express that collided into a goods train in Odisha on Friday, some of its derailed compartments then hitting a passing Yashwantpur-Howrah train, leaving 275 dead, including the three brothers. “There is no one left to call me mother,” the tearful Subhadra Gayen said.
But even as she deals with grief, Gayen now has to deal with life on the horizon without the three primary bread earners in the family, all farm labourers who were travelling to Tamil Naduafter a short break at home. The family now has been reduced to four widows, and seven children, four of whom are minors. Haran’s son, 18 year old Abhijit, has only just begun working a daily wage at a local eatery. In many ways, Gayen’s story encapsulates that of the Coromandel Express; a train that cuts through India from the East to the South; carrying migrant labourers in the hundreds to their places of work; and now in its tragedy, leaving behind not only hundreds of people dead, but families that depend on the migrant labourers that were inside, despondent.
An official of the South Paraganas district, one of Bengal’s poorest, said, “At least a dozen people from South 24 Parganas district have died and more than 100 were injured. Six of the deceased were from the Basanti community block where the Gayens lived.”
Overall, on Sunday Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said that 62 members from the state had died, and 182 were still missing. Most were migrant labourers like Gayen.
Between 2001 and 2011, 5.8 lakh people had migrated out of Bengal, according to the 2011 census report. In 2020, even during the pandemic where there were restrictions on movement, and industry and businesses stopped and started as Covid waves ebbed and flowed, the West Bengal government had said that the number of migrant workers had touched 1.1 million with Murshidabad district accounting for the highest numbers.
Even on Friday, there were at least three people from the district on the Coromandel Express. Apurba Sarkar, chairman of the TMC’s Murshidabad unit, said, “This figure would have been higher had the accident taken place around Eid. People come home before the festival and return to work after it. Murshidabad produces the most skilled people sought by construction, textiles, jewellery and heavy electricals industries in other states and even the Middle East. The money they earn is no match for what MNREGA can guarantee,” said Sarkar.
On Sunday, the BJP said that the high number of casualties from the state were emblematic of the West Bengal’s inability to generate employment within the state. “It is because of the TMC’s government’s failure to attract capital and generate employment that so many people have to travel to other states. According to our estimate, there are at least 5 million migrant workers in Bengal,” Bengal BJP chief spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya said.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee however countered this claim and said, “All states produce migrant workers. Even people from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Kashmir and Assam come to Bengal for work,” Banerjee said.
On Sunday she announced that the affected families of migrant workers will be given ₹2,000 monetary support and ration for three months in addition to the ex-gratia compensation. The chief minister announced a compensation of ₹ 10,000 for all those who suffered trauma in the accident, She said the state will provide ₹5 lakh each for families of those who died, ₹1 lakh for those who suffered critical injury and ₹25,000 for those with minor injury.
“We will also produce 4.5 million additional jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) with our own initiative although the Centre is yet to clear ₹7,000 crore towards arrear payment,” she said at the secretariat.
Bihar, another state where migrants leave their homes in droves to find work, lost eight people in the accident. While Principal secretary, labour welfare, Arvind Chaudhary said there was no official data on the number of people leaving Bihar, Vyasji, a retired bureaucrat and former principal secretary of the department said, “In the southern states, even unskilled workers get work that matches their ability and get respect. Skilled workers, on the other hand, get better remuneration as a lot of MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) have come up in these states.”
Former director of AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences (ANSISS), DM Diwakar said migrants have also been congregating to southern India, after being the subject of political browbeating by parties in power such as in Mumbai. “Though most of the statements made by these leaders are of political nature, the local administration usually adheres to the sense put out by the politicians, and migrants have to suffer,” Diwakar said.