Train deaths shock India

A viral video of a toddler trying to wake up his dead mother at a railway station in Bihar has caused widespread outrage and highlighted one of the biggest ongoing humanitarian crises in India.

The images show the body of 35-year-old Arbina Khatoon on the platform of Muzaffarpur railway station on Monday.

Her young son can be seen repeatedly tugging at a piece of cloth placed on her body.

Those who travelled with her claimed she died moments earlier on one of the special trains the Central government is running for millions of poor migrant labourers stuck in big cities due to the coronavirus lockdown.

The woman had taken the train from Ahmedabad in Gujarat - some 1,800km away - on Saturday along with her two children, sister and brother-in-law and was heading for her home town Katihar in Bihar.

She died of "extreme heat, hunger and dehydration" on Monday as the train reached Muzaffarpur station, about 320km short of her home town, Indian media organisations reported, quoting the victim's family.

After her body was laid out on the station platform, her little son kept playing and trying to wake her up until an older child dragged him away.

A Railways Ministry spokesperson confirmed the woman's death on the train but said she had been unwell even before she got on board.

The Railways shared a letter from relatives attesting to her poor health.

The ministry also denied reports of a lack of food and water on the special trains, calling it "fake news".

"The woman's family members have said she was already unwell. Request all not to spread fake news," the Railways tweeted.

At the same station, a four-year-old child also died, reportedly from the heat and inadequate food.

The child's family had boarded a different train from Delhi on Sunday.

His father said that he "died due to poor facilities on special trains for migrant workers".

Local police told AFP the child died on the train due to illness.

Nine migrant workers travelling amid the coronavirus pandemic have died on trains in recent days.

The bodies of two other workers who made a 1,480km train journey from Mumbai to Varanasi were removed from the carriages on Wednesday.

Police said the men, aged 30 and 63, suffered from ailments.

The Press Trust of India (PTI) reported five other migrant workers died on train journeys between Monday and Wednesday.

The Railways said on Twitter that "no such deaths due to hunger have been reported".

"In most of these cases, it is found that those who died are old, sick people and patients with chronic diseases, who had actually gone to big cities for medical treatment," a Railways spokesperson told PTI.

The poignant images have highlighted India's migrant workers' crisis.

Millions of workers who had migrated from small towns and villages to big cities for work were left to fend for themselves when the Central government enforced a strict lockdown on March 25 to fight the spread of coronavirus.

Left with no jobs or money to feed their families, millions of workers began desperately walking back to their home towns thousands of kilometres away, defying the lockdown.

More than 100 migrant workers have died on the way home, either in road accidents or from hunger and exhaustion.

News reports of the plight of the migrants and pressure from opposition political parties pushed the Central government to run the special trains to take the migrant workers home.

But it has been an ordeal for the workers. They reportedly have to endure tedious paperwork besides Covid-19 screening - and have to stand in long lines in the soaring heat.

Temperatures have touched 50 deg C in parts of India, adding to the suffering of labourers and families on the move.

A recent Home Ministry order, which stressed that no permission is needed from destination states to run the trains, seems to have added to the chaos.

Observers point out that a lack of coordination between the Centre and the states has worsened the arrangements on the trains and at stations.

Critics say the special trains have been delayed, leaving migrants waiting or on trains in scorching hot weather for days and that there has been a shortage of food and water.

The Railways and the Central government deny the charges.

India has reported more than 152,000 cases of Covid-19 and more than 4,337 deaths.

And, with the lockdown restrictions eased in most parts of the country recently, there has been a sharp spike in the number of cases.

Indo-Asian News Service, AFP