After the Odisha tragedy, family says still not allowed to meet train driver
The family of Gunanidhi Mohanty, the train driver involved in India's worst rail accident for three decades, have not been allowed to see him since the crash.
For two whole weeks in the small by-lanes of the village of Naharpada, 10 kilometres away from the bustling city of Cuttack, the conversation has not shifted. At the playground, at tea stalls, on the kerb as people sit and whisper, there is one constant question. Was Gunanidhi Mohanty going too fast? There is only one home, its walls bright pink, its occupants worried and angry, where that question is neither asked, nor answered.
“Everyone in the village thinks my son is responsible for the accident. But he has been piloting trains for the past 27 years, and had never, ever, made a mistake. How do I know what happened that evening? I have not even spoken to my son. I have only been waiting for him to come home,” says an irate 80-year-old Bishnu Charan Mohanty.
On June 2, Gunanidhi Mohanty was piloting the Coromandel Express, from Kharagpur to Bhubaneswar, when at Bahanaga Bazaar in Balasore, the train switched to a “loop line” where there was a stationary goods train, colliding into it. The impact derailed several compartments, some of which strayed onto the path of the onrushing Yeshwantpur-Howrah Express, that crashed into them.
In a matter of seconds, just before 7pm, Gunanidhi had become part of India’s worst rail accident for three decades, leaving 291 dead, and over 1,100 injured. One of the injured is Gunanidhi himself, admitted to the AMRI hospital in Bhubaneswar with three broken ribs, and head injuries. Since then, former army man Bishnu Charan has waited for his son to return.
Two days after the accident, Ranjit Mohanty, Gunanidhi’s younger brother, visited the hospital to meet his brother. His interaction was fleeting. “They did not allow any mobile phone in the ICU. The doctors said in the impact of the accident, some blood had become congealed inside his chest. He was in deep pain and unable to speak. Though my sister-in-law was there, I am not sure if they allowed her much access either,” he said.
Gunanidhi’s elder brother Sanjay Mohanty, a lawyer at a local court, too went on the same day. “He was in ICU then. But after that we have not been allowed to meet him,” he said.
Gunanidhi was released by the hospital, four days ago,a doctor working in the medical department of the East Coast Railwaysaid. But his father and brother still say they don’t know where he is.
“Nobody has told us anything about my brother. I think he is still in hospital. But I am not sure,” Ranjit said.
The public relations officer of East Coast Railway, where Gunanidhi is employed ,refused to divulge any details about his health condition. “Health is a private issue and we can’t comment on that. Besides, two probes (by CRS and CBI) are continuing. So we will not be able to comment,” said Vikas Kumar, PRO of East Coast Railway.
A senior official of AMRI hospital said both the loco pilot and the assistant loco pilot were discharged 4-5 days ago.
To be sure, Gunanidhi is not one of the five railways officials that are being questioned by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) — the agency began probing the incident on June 6 — or the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) for suspected dereliction of duty.
It is not usual for a family to be kept away from an injured member, especially if there are no legal or medical reasons to do so. While the investigation into the train accident needs to be water-tight, transparency is crucial. Against this backdrop, the limits on Mohanty’s family are perplexing.
Sanjay said he was convinced his brother had no role to play in the accident. “He joined as a goods train driver in 1996, and started piloting passenger trains a few years ago. Everyone thinks the accident happened due to my brother’s mistake while the truth is that a loco pilot has little control on which track the train would run. This is something he would tell us often. It’s the duty of the on-duty station master who allows a particular train to travel on that line. In any case, Coromandel Express was permitted to travel at 130km per hour on that section while the actual speed was 128km per hour,” he said.
A day after the train tragedy, Railway Board member of Operation and Business Development, Jaya Varma Sinha told reporters that she had spoken to the driver and he confirmed that the signal was green. “Green signal means that in every way the driver knows that his path ahead is clear and he can go forward with his permitted maximum speed. The permitted speed at this section was 130kmph and he was running his train at 128kmph which we have confirmed from loco logs. He neither had passed when the signal was red, nor was over-speeding,” Sinha had said.
For his father and brothers, despite the murmurs in Naharpada all around them, the question of his innocence has long been answered. “We just want to see him, and hug him. People may view him as guilty of an accident unfairly. But he is our family, and I only want to look at him alive and well. Maybe after that, he will tell us what happened,” his father said.