Shock, grief over Amritsar tragedy give way to blame game

Minister of state for railways, Manoj Sinha, on Saturday ruled out any punitive action against the driver of the train that mowed down Dussehra revellers in Amritsar, saying there was no negligence on the part of the national transporter.
Mss funeral of victims of train accident in Amritsar.(PTI Photo)
Mss funeral of victims of train accident in Amritsar.(PTI Photo)
Updated on Oct 21, 2018 08:03 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Amritsar | BySurjit Singh and Anil Sharma

Railways denied any responsibility on Saturday for a horrific accident in which a speeding train mowed down scores of people watching Dussehra festivities in Amritsar, killing at least 61 people, and shifted the blame onto the local administration, amid an outpouring of grief over the tragedy.

Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh ordered an inquiry to determine if any lapses had been responsible for Friday night’s accident, which took place in this Sikh holy city, when a large crowd was watching the customary burning of a giant Ravana effigy stuffed with firecrackers in the climax to the 10-day festival.

Minister of state for railways Manoj Sinha, who visited the accident site near Joda Phatak, said, “The incident was not railways’ fault. There was no lapse on our part and no action against the driver will be initiated.” Local authorities did not inform the railways about the event, he said, adding that it is the district administration that gives permissions for organising such events.

Railway board chairman Ashwani Lohani indicated that the state-run transporter will not open an investigation into the accident during the event, organised near a level crossing barely 70 metres from the Amritsar-Jalandhar double railway track at around 7 pm. The level crossing was closed when the train approached, but people had spread out from the ground where the effigy was being burnt to the areas surrounding the tracks, many of them standing on the tracks. The area hadn’t been cordoned off and the explosion of fireworks was so deafening that the crowed failed to hear the train, whose driver neither blew the horn nor slowed down.

Read | It was dark, couldn’t hear train coming because of crackers: Eyewitnesses

Chief minister Singh, whose government came under fire from some opposition leaders for alleged lapses, ordered a magisterial probe and asked for the report to be submitted within four weeks. The chief minister also appointed a three-member crisis management group to oversee relief operations.

“The probe will cover all aspects of the tragedy. Only an inquiry can tell us about who gave permission (to the event),” said Singh, who visited the injured in three hospitals. Lohani said the railways will cooperate with the inquiry officer.

Municipal corporation councillor Vijay Madan and her son Sourabh Madan Mithu, the main organisers of the Dussehra celebration, went underground with other family members, according to the news agency Press Trust of India.

Lohani said an inquiry by the office of the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS), which works under the civil aviation ministry, was not required as “it was a case of trespassing”. CRS conducts mandatory inquiries into all railway accidents at unmanned level crossings and due to derailments or bridge collapses.

A section of leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal and ally Bharatiya Janata Party said the tragedy could have been avoided if chief guest Navjot Kaur Sidhu, the wife of state minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, had arrived on time at the Dusshera festivities. “It is a tragedy...We should not politicise the issue,” said Amritsar East legislator Sidhu, defending his wife.

Amritsar sub-divisional magistrate Rajesh Sharma confirmed 61 deaths and added that 40 bodies had been identified. “Around 20 bodies have been kept at Amritsar civil hospital and Guru Nanak Dev hospital’s mortuary houses for identification,” he added. Many of the victims were migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Government railway police (GRP) registered a case of culpable homicide and causing death by negligence against unidentified persons on a complaint by a local police officer.

In the tragedy-struck city, some family members of those killed searched frantically for the dismembered body parts of their loved ones. Such was the impact of the train smashing into the crowd that people were flung into the air and body parts were severed and scattered on the tracks.

Others performed the last rites of their relatives. Weeping inconsolably, many fainted at the cremation grounds when the funeral pyres were lit.

At 3am on the night of the tragedy, 50-year-old Vijay Kumar received on WhatsApp a photo of his 19-year-old son Manish’s severed head. Since then, the family has been searching for his body.

Pawan Malhotra, who had moved away from the tracks to attend a phone call when the accident took place, said, “With my bare hands, I gathered the severed limbs of the people who were run over by the train.”

(With inputs from Faizan Haider in Delhi)

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