By Roli Srivastava
MUMBAI, Jan 19 (Openly) - Fifteen people were killed when a truck ploughed into a group of migrant workers sleeping on a roadside early on Tuesday near the western city of Surat, a textiles industry hub that draws labourers from across the country.
Local officials said a baby girl, six men and eight women died when the truck swerved off the road after colliding with a tractor. Six others were hurt in the accident, which highlighted the precarious living conditions of millions of migrant workers.
Most of the victims were from neighbouring Rajasthan state and had been working as casual labourers in Surat, city government officials said, adding that they were trying to find out where they had been employed.
"Our initial reports show they were working at different places and we will speak to the injured to find out more details," said Gulab Laxman Patel, deputy labour commissioner in Surat, which lies in Gujarat state.
"We can monitor the workers if they were working in an industry. But how do you monitor those sleeping by the roadside?" Patel told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani announced 200,000 rupees ($2,734) in compensation for the victims' families and Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his condolences in a tweet.
Surat, which has hundreds of power looms and textile factories as well as a bustling diamond industry, is one of India's biggest destinations for migrant workers.
Many of them poured out of the city after last year's strict coronavirus lockdown shuttered workplaces, leaving them without jobs or income.
Hundreds of India's migrant workers were killed in road accidents as they walked home to distant villages during the lockdown, and the ordeal made many reluctant to return to work.
Some have started to go back to the cities, however, though it was not clear when the workers who died on Tuesday had arrived in Surat, officials said.
Work on a portal to register all migrant workers to connect them to health and housing benefits is underway, they added, but labour rights campaigners fear more migrants are at risk as they filter back to the country's industrial hubs.
"Most urban governments are busy with COVID-19 and the migrant workers are returning at their own risk," said Krishnavatar Sharma, co-founder of migrant rights non-profit Aajevika Bureau, which has been seeking housing for workers.
Informal settlements of migrant workers in cities are often razed, forcing some to sleep in dangerous places including roadsides and building sites, campaigners said.
($1 = 73.1507 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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