As vehicles careen down deserted roads and lakhs of migrants are on the move -- packed into trucks and tempos, riding rickety cycles or just walking towards their villages, hundreds, maybe thousands, of kilometres away – the death count from accidents rises inexorably with each day of the lockdown.
The SaveLife Foundation, a non-profit organisation working towards curbing road accidents in the country, has recorded nearly 2,000 road crashes and 368 deaths from March 25 when the lockdown began to May 16 (11 am).
Of these, 139 deaths are of migrants travelling back home, 27 of essential workers and 202 of others, it said.
"Of the total 368 deaths reported, over 100 were recorded from Uttar Pradesh alone. The top five states in this tally include Madhya Pradesh (30), Telangana (22), Maharashtra (19) and Punjab (17). The most common factor for these road crashes was speeding," SaveLife Foundation CEO Piyush Tewari told PTI.
As the numbers spiralled, slowly, steadily and then in what appeared to be a torrent, a pattern emerged. Many of the tragedies occurred in the dark, which is when it is cooler to walk, and many people were caught in their sleep.
That’s what happened on Saturday too, when a trailer rammed into a stationary truck in the pre-dawn darkness around 3.30 am on a highway near Auraiya in Uttar Pradesh, killing at least 24 people and injuring 36. The vehicles, one headed from Delhi to Madhya Pradesh and the other to Rajasthan, were ferrying labourers to their homes,
Some of the workers had stopped for tea and others were possibly sleeping by the roadside or in the vehicles when the crash occurred.
Most of those killed were from Jharkhand and West Bengal, and some from Kushinagar in eastern Uttar Pradesh, officials said as reports suggested that some of the victims may have been crushed under cement bags loaded in one of the vehicles.
A few hours later, tragedy unfolded in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, when five migrant workers going from Maharashtra to Uttar Pradesh were killed when a truck carrying them overturned on the Sagar-Kanpur Road.
The combination of no traffic and speeding vehicles has led to havoc, endangering the lives of those who found themselves without work or money in the coronavirus-induced lockdown and were frantic to get home, any which way.
Over this week alone, there have been multiple accidents reported from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
In Guna, Madhya Pradesh, for instance, as many as 14 migrants were killed and around 60 injured in two different road accidents on Thursday and Friday.
On Friday, six migrant workers were killed and 95 injured in separate road accidents across Uttar Pradesh.
And the day before, six migrant workers walking from Punjab to Bihar were killed in Muzaffarnagar in the state when they were hit by a roadways bus on the Delhi-Saharanpur Highway, officials said.
With no compass to guide them on their treacherous inter-state journey home and perhaps to escape the police, many people also walk along railway tracks.
On May 8, it cost 16 lives.
In perhaps the most gruesome of accidents, 16 migrant workers going to Madhya Pradesh were mowed down by freight train when they dozed off on the tracks near Aurangabad in Maharashtra.
In a chilling reflection of the hunger and deprivation that led the group of 20 men working in a steel unit in Jalna – four of them survived – the ‘rotis’ they had packed to see them through the journey lay scattered on the tracks.
The same morning, hundreds of kilometres away, a migrant labourer couple, Krishna Sahu (45) and his wife Pramila (40), were run over by an unidentified vehicle on their way from Lucknow to Chhattisgarh.
The couple, on a bicycle, were with their two children, both under five years, who survived the crash.
Reduced to statistics as they undertake their own personal odysseys, challenging the odds but not always triumphing them, there was a back story everywhere.
Some lockdown induced road accidents were reported as early as March 28 when four migrants were run over by a truck on the Maharashtra-Gujarat border. According to Indian Express, the four, part of a group of seven which wanted to reach their villages in Rajasthan after crossing into Gujarat, had just begun walking after taking some rest when a truck came from behind and rammed into them.
Two days later, 40-year-old labourer Sukh Lal Ahirwar died in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh after a car hit him. Ahirwar and his wife had walked for two straight days from Delhi towards their home in Tikamgarh in Madhya Pradesh and were resting on a road divider when the accident took place, reported the Hindi daily Nayi Duniya.
Those who survive have no option but continue the journey.
Like the group of 20 labourers who left in a tempo from Mumbai to Lucknow on May 10.
The 1,400-km journey had barely begun when the tempo met with an accident, killing their driver.
The driver had spoken to the news channel NDTV just hours earlier.
"There are lots of problems. We don''t have anything to eat. We had rations till now, so we were eating that. Now, we are heading out. We will travel somehow in this," one of those in the group told the channel.
There were also reports of a woman and her six-year-old daughter who were part of a group travelling between Maharashtra and Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh in an autorickshaw.
They had travelled almost 1,300 km when the autorickshaw was hit by a truck just short of their destination in Fatehpur.
The Railways has organised "Shramik Special trains" and ferried at least 12 lakh migrants to their homes since May 1.
"To bring back the workers till date, the Railways has operated 1,034 Shramik Special trains. Out of which 106 were operated yesterday (Friday). Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has taken steps positively and 80 per cent of the total Shramik Special trains have been operated by these two states," Union minister Piyush Goyal tweeted on Saturday.
But if the thousands of workers and their families still trudging their way home, however they can, is any indication, it might be too little too late.
India accounts for one of the highest road crashes fatalities in the world with an estimated 1.5 lakh people killed in about five lakh accidents a year. PTI MG MIN