Hingalgunj (West Bengal): “I have lost everything. All my three children are gone. They themselves have families with small children. To whom would I go and beg to manage our living. How would we live?” cries out Subhadra Gayen, a resident of Chharnakhali, a small village in the Sundarbans in Bengal.
Her three sons, Haran Gayen, Nishikanta Gayen, and Dibakar Gayen, used to travel to and from the southern states in search of work.
On June 2, they, along with six other villagers, boarded the Coromandel Express destined for Andhra Pradesh, where they were to work as daily wage earners. Five of them returned home in coffins. As of now, there is still no information about the fate of the sixth villager, leaving family members suspecting the worst.
Gloom hangs over the South 24 Parganas district, which has witnessed the highest number of casualties resulting from the Odisha train clash. As of evening on June 4, the district administration confirmed the deaths of 27 individuals, with the majority coming from the Sundarbans region. Additionally, 19 people remain missing, while 103 others have sustained injuries.
The Coromandel incident highlights the dire situation in rural Bengal, where pervasive corruption and lack of job opportunities push people to seek better fortune elsewhere. Despite the risks involved, year after year, the lure of slightly better prospects compels them to board south-bound trains.
“There are no income opportunities in the village. We don’t have any jobs here. All our men are forced to go to southern states in search of employment. Only the elderly, women and children remain in the village,” says Sumita Ghosh.
An alarming and concerning aspect emerges from the reported data: all but two of the deceased belonged to minority or ‘lower’ caste communities, underscoring the plight faced by underprivileged residents in rural Bengal.
In recent years, the Coromandel Express, formerly known as the “hospital express” during the 1980s and 1990s due to its popularity among medical patients traveling south, has acquired a new reputation as the “migrant express.”
The agrarian crisis, climate change, and limited employment opportunities under the National Rural Employment Guarantee are compelling people to seek greener pastures. According to migration data from the 2011 Census, using the Place of Last Residence (POLR) approach, it was found that 2.4 million individuals, accounting for 2.6% of West Bengal’s total population of 91.3 million, reported being lifetime outmigrants.
This figure represents an increase from the 1.7% reported in the 1991 Census, indicating a further rise over the past few decades. Economically and agriculturally depressed areas in the state have witnessed a higher intensity of male outmigration.
In the neighbouring district of North 24 Parganas, we spoke to Saikat Mondal, a resident of Jogeshgunje GP under Hingalgunj Police Station.
A school dropout, Saikat moved to Bengaluru when he was 14 and currently works at a packaging factory earning a monthly salary of Rs 15,000. He was returning home on the SMVT Bengaluru-Howrah Express, which collided with the Coromandel Express. He plans to return to Karnataka once things settle down, as he can earn more there.
On the other hand, Ataur Molla, who was present in one of the affected compartments of the Coromandel Express, expressed that he would reconsider migrating to another state if the government could provide an alternative source of income.
Ataur, a 25-year-old resident of Habaspur in the Hasnabad Police Station area, was traveling to Kerala to lead prayers (imamat) at a mosque. He sustained injuries and returned to his village on Sunday morning with assistance from the West Bengal government.
As more bodies started to arrive, we noticed a group of migrant workers from various parts of Hingalganj leaving for Tamil Nadu. When asked about their departure, their standard response was, “Will we starve to death in the village?”
Employment is crucial for their survival, and the immediate need to earn a living has overshadowed their fear of death. The question of what takes precedence, life or livelihood, hangs in the air. Considering the situation, it appears that the answer leans towards prioritising livelihood, with life following thereafter.
Aparna Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based political analyst with experience in campaign strategy, communication and public affairs.