The coronavirus outbreak in India has left millions of migrant workers exposed to hunger and homelessness due to an ill-conceived nationwide lockdown imposed by the central government on March 24. The government’s decision to start Shramik special trains nearly two months after labourers began walking home on foot seemed to bring some respite. However, the hope was shortlived as news reports of dozens of workers dying during the train journey started to pour in.
A troubling video of a toddler trying to wake up his dead mother on Bihar’s Muzaffarpur railway platform was widely circulated on social media. According to media reports, the child’s mother Arvina Khatoon (23) died of heat, thirst and hunger as passengers were not served food or water inside the train.
The Railway authorities were quick to deny the reports. East Central Railway tweeted that Arvina used to keep sick which was the reason for her death.
23.05.20 को अहमदाबाद से कटिहार के लिए चली 09395 श्रमिक स्पेशल ट्रेन में श्रीमती बिना खातून की (उम्र-23 वर्ष) बीमार रहने के कारण यात्रा के दौरान मृत्यु हो गयी। उनके साथ बहन कोहिनूर खातून और उनके पति वजीर आजम तथा दो बच्चे थे। https://t.co/BV4qSIrDPB
— East Central Railway (@ECRlyHJP) May 27, 2020
The newly-introduced fact-checking wing of Press Information Bureau (PIB) termed the media reports “incorrect” and “imaginary”. According to PIB Bihar, Arvina was suffering from an illness before she boarded the train and this was corroborated by her family.
#दावा: वायरल वीडियो में मुजफ्फरपुर स्टेशन पर एक महिला की भूख-प्यास से हुई मौत को दिखाया जा रहा है#factcheck: गलत और भ्रामक है। महिला के पहले से ही बीमार होने की पुष्टि उसके परिवार ने की है। pic.twitter.com/XIsP9c8Esm
— PIB In Bihar 🇮🇳 (@PIB_Patna) May 27, 2020
In an earlier tweet, PIB Fact Check had stated that the cause of death cannot be determined without an autopsy.
PIB did not provide any details on the alleged statement by Arvina’s family members or the type of illness she was suffering from. In this report, we will present the fact-check that should have been.
Arvina hailed from a poor family and lived in Srikol village, Katihar district, Bihar. She is survived by her parents and six sisters, three of whom are yet to be married. Living under the same roof, the family barely managed to make ends meet. Arvina’s husband had divorced her about a year ago. To support her two children, she had moved to Gujarat’s Ahmedabad to work with her sister and brother-in-law in construction. She took her children with her. The lockdown had been hard on Arvina and her family members in Gujarat who were running out of money after losing their jobs. On May 23, they were finally able to board a train from Ahemdabad to Katihar. However, Arvina passed away during the journey on the afternoon of May 25. This was about two hours before the train reached Muzaffarpur station.
After her death made headlines, PIB claimed that Arvina was previously ill. Another user shared a police complaint filed by Arvina’s brother-in-law Mohammed Wazir who was travelling with her on the special train. The complaint stated that she was both physically and mentally was sick. JDU’s Rajiv Ranjan Prasad tweeted a video where Wazir can be heard saying that they were given food in the train. However, he denied that Arvina was suffering from an illness. A report in the BBC quoted Wazir as saying that they were given a meal once during the day and served snacks and water at intervals. He told BBC too that Arvina did not have a pre-existing medical condition.
In order to get video statements from Arvina’s family members, Alt News contacted various individuals who live in close vicinity to their village Srikol. Vice-President of AISA Bihar, Kazim Irfani, agreed to pay them a visit and ask a list of questions prepared by Alt News. Speaking with him, Wazir gave a different statement than the one he had given to BBC where he claimed that they were not given food and water in the train. However, he maintained that Arvina was not previously ill, consistent with his statement to BBC and the video posted by JDU spokesperson Rajiv Ranjan Prasad.
The complaint filed at Muzaffarpur police station states that Arvina was both physically and mentally unwell. When asked if Wazir had written the complaint himself, he said that he cannot read and write but only knows how to sign his name. The police complaint carries his thumb impression. A policeman had written the complaint on his behalf. However, it wasn’t read out to him before his thumb impression was taken, said Wazir. He further informed that Arvina was not physically and mentally ill.
In a phone conversation separate from the video statement attached above, Wazir told Alt News that his initial statements were haphazard because he was in a distressed state of mind: “She [Arvina] had just died and they were asking questions. I said whatever came to my mind.”
However, Wazir was not the only person accompanying Arvina. PIB claimed that “family members” of Arvina said that she was previously ill but that was not the case. Below is a video statement of Arvina’s sister and Wazir’s wife Kohinoor Khatoon. She was also on the Shramik train travelling from Ahmedabad to Katihar. She said that Arvina did not complain of any illness when they left, however, “was yearning for water” in the train.
While Wazir stated that Arvina had eaten before taking the train, Kohinoor said that she didn’t. However, both stood their ground that she was not unwell at the time of boarding.
Kohinoor further said that they had visited a doctor for a check-up before they got on the train and the examination found that Arvina was fine. Wazir said the same in a phone conversation with Alt News. This is an important aspect of the story because as per government guidelines, only people asymptomatic for COVID-19 are allowed to travel. Because Arvina boarded the train, it is evident that she did not have a fever, shortness of breath, cold/ cough or related symptoms for the viral infection.
Even if we assume that she was suffering from a long-term disease, PIB does not specify the illness which was serious enough to take her life her. Moreover, no medical records of long-term sickness were shared. The government also did not conduct a postmortem of the dead body that would’ve ascertained the cause of death. If the media cannot claim that Arvina died of heat, starvation and dehydration because only an autopsy can determine that, as per the Railways, how does it make sense for the government to assert that she ‘did not’ die of these reasons?
Another one of Arvina’s sisters, Parveena, also told Alt News that she did not have a pre-existing condition. Her father Mohammed Nehrul said the same. His statement is attached below. “She wanted to take care of her children and had shifted to Ahmedabad. It had been 8 months but in the last two months, she had trouble making ends meet and borrowed about Rs 3000 for food,” he said adding that they had spoken to her half an hour before she had boarded the train. He said that his daughter told him, “We are all okay, don’t worry. We are going to get on the train.” The family later found out that she had died after Kohinoor called and informed them.
Mohammed Nehrul was also contacted by NDTV. He told the channel that Arvina could go to Ahmedabad and work “as she was mentally and physically sound.”
Arvina’s mother gave a similar account. She too said that Arvina wasn’t sick and wanted to come back home because the lockdown had rendered her jobless.
A local journalist from Katihar, Dainik Bhaskar’s Noor Parvez, had visited the family a day after Wazir and his wife returned with Arvina’s children. Parvez told Alt News that the family members informed him that passengers were not given food in the train and Arvina was not suffering from any illness before boarding.
Expert medical opinion
Alt News contacted Dr Sylvia Karpagam for her medical opinion on the death of several migrant workers travelling in Shramik trains. Dr Karpagam is a specialist in community medicine with over 15 years of experience. She has worked in ‘Right to food’ and ‘Right to health’ campaigns. She also supports lawyers to look at postmortem reports in medicolegal cases.
“These deaths of migrant workers in trains cannot have a single reason. The postmortem should include underlying causes and pre-existing conditions as well. Even if some of the 80 people who died have had a pre-existing medical illness, that is just one factor. Even if people had a pre-existing condition, the question is what aggravated the problem which caused them to die on the train. The problem of poor nutrition is already there in the country. This can be seen by our chronic hunger index and this affects the poor migrant workers more than most people and they often do not have reserve stores of energy. During the lockdown, this became worse as we have seen that they have been driven to travel long distances by foot because they had nothing to eat as their incomes were suddenly lost,” she said.
Dr Karpagam further added, “On top of food deprivation, you have dehydration due to the long journeys in hot weather. If hydration was ensured, this could have prevented many of the deaths. Some already sick and starving patients could still have been saved if they had good access to water. Dehydration is more quickly deadly that just starvation. These people clearly suffered both. First the heat exhaustion sets in and given the duration of the journey this can easily become a heat stroke. Heatstroke is a medical emergency and can only be handled in good hospitals. This could not have been addressed in the train by anyone but easily prevented by ensuring adequate water supply for everyone at the very least.”
Railway Minister Piyush Goyal recently claimed that deaths in trains were due to pre-existing conditions. He advised that people suffering from serious ailments, pregnant women, those above 65 years of age and children below 10 years of age should avoid travelling in Shramik special trains. However, Dr Karpagam pointed out that people with chronic conditions fly and travel in trains all the time. “Doctors allow their patients to do that with the necessary precautions. They don’t just die at the end of long journeys in such large numbers. The people with chronic conditions are usually aware of their issues and would do what they can to take care of themselves in a long journey. But if they have died in such large numbers, we have to consider the effects of starvation, hypoglycemia (low sugar) and dehydration on top of the medical issues and prolonged starvation during the lockdown they were already having.”
Another resident of Bihar Mohan Lal Sharma was found dead in the toilet of a Shramik special train. His dead body went undetected for four days. The deceased’s nephew said that Lal did not complain of any illness while boarding the train but his autopsy said that he suffered a stroke. “If the patient had a stroke as per autopsy that is an incomplete picture. We don’t know the type of stroke, the condition of the deceased — whether there were signs of dehydration or hypoglycemia. This is especially important because 37 is a very uncommon age for strokes. Dehydration can cause heatstroke,” opined Dr Karpagam.
The whole incident raises a lot of doubts, none of which were cleared by either the Railways or PIB Fact Check.
1. If Arvina was unwell, why did that not show up in the medical examination before her travel?
2. What was the long-term illness she was suffering from? Where are her medical records?
3. If an autopsy was not conducted, how can the government be sure that she did not die because of lack of food and water in hot weather?
4. If this inference was based on statements by Arvina’s family members, why did PIB not speak with her sister who was also travelling with her? Had Arvina suffered from a long-term illness, her parents would be aware. Why did PIB not speak with her parents?
5. Were her brother-in-law Wazir’s statements the only basis for claiming that she was fed on the train? But this was not what Wazir told us and he claimed that his initial statements were made in a state of distress. While Wazir did give differing statements at various points in time, he never claimed that Arvina suffered from a pre-existing condition. Furthermore, the police complaint which mentions the same was not written by Wazir. He told us that he cannot read and write and the complaint wasn’t read out to him before taking his thumb impression.
To summarise, there was no evidence provided by Railway authorities that Arvina Khatoon died of a pre-existing condition. Furthermore, PIB Fact Check, which has emerged as the latest tool for bullying journalists and media organisations, did not write a thorough fact-check. In fact, PIB’s investigation into the death of a migrant worker was barely two sentences.