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Odisha Train Tragedy: Families Of Victims Live Their 'Worst Nightmares'

The Odisha train disaster may soon become an event of the past, but the lives of the families of the victims and those involved in rescue and relief operations are changed forever

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All That Remains: Arjuna Patra is waiting for DNA test results so that he can claim his wife’s body
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On June 2, Monjumoni Patra, 42, boarded the Chennai-bound Coromandel Express at Balasore in Odisha. She was travelling on an unreserved ticket to Cuttack to get her medical reports from a clinic. She had barely been on the train for a few minutes when it collided with a stationary goods train in the Bahanaga Bazar area of Balasore.  The collision caused the derailment of 21 coaches. Three of them hit the last two coaches of the incoming Bengaluru–Howrah Express. The rest of the train moved on with its passengers to its intended location.

But Patra could not reach her destination. She became one of the 291 official casualties of what has now ubiquitously been dubbed the ‘Odisha train tragedy’.

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Patra’s husband Arjuna and son Dharmendra, 21, rushed to the spot as soon as they heard of the accident. “We reached the spot in half an hour and searched for my mother’s body among the piles of dead and unconscious people,” recalls Dharmendra.

When they could not find her at the site of the accident, they started looking for her among the injured in hospitals and then in mortuaries. “On June 9, we managed to identify her body at AIIMS Bhubaneshwar from the jewellery that she was wearing. The rings on her fingers were heirlooms,” says Arjuna.

While the kin of victims of the Odisha train tragedy have been living through what they describe as the worst nightmare of their lives, officials are overwhelmed by the scale of the Tragedy.

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Dharmendra was told that as per the identification protocol, he would need to submit his DNA to the authorities for testing and was asked to come back in 48 hours. On May 19, after a long and agonising wait, the family arrived in Bhubaneshwar via the same tracks on which Monjumoni had died. “They’re saying it will take more time. The bodies are rotting and decomposing. We just want the body back,” says a tearful Arjuna.

At the time of filing of the story, the family was still waiting. Many families like the Patras have been searching for their loved ones after the accident. But for some, the search is ending in despair.

Ashok Rabi Das from West Bengal has stationed himself in Bhubaneshwar since the day of the accident and has been waiting for his brother Krishna’s body. Krishna was on his way home from Bengaluru where he worked. Das identified him through his possessions like a belt and shirt.

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The remains of the train tragedy; A soft toy on the train tracks Photo: Sandipan Chatterjee

The families can’t help but wonder why some people have managed to get the bodies back on time while others are made to wait. “They (the authorities) think we are after money. All we want right now are the bodies of our relatives so that we can perform their last rites,” Das states.

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Identification Nightmare

While the kin of victims have been living through what they describe as the worst nightmare of their lives, officials are overwhelmed by the scale of the accident. “Identification isn’t easy work since most bodies were already in pretty bad shape when they were brought to the AIIMS. Since the announcement of the compensation, many are making fraudulent claims over dead bodies to earn quick cash,” states Rudra Samantaray, Joint Secretary of Mo Parivar, a civil society organisation affiliated with the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) that has been working with the families.

The group’s medical network and its dedicated members led by Arup Patnaik, the former Police Commissioner of Mumbai, worked day and night in the aftermath of the accident—now termed the largest railway accident in the world since 2004—to mitigate the loss of human life and streamline the state government’s rescue and treatment work.

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Tragedy and Rescue: Ashok Kumar Singh, a migrant worker from Bihar, recuperating in a Cuttack hospital Photo: Sandipan Chatterjee

“We coordinated the movement of about 122 ambulances that night bringing patients to hospitals. We also coordinated with the transporting of dead bodies and identification and set up a helpdesk at AIIMS where we put up photos of the bodies to begin the identification process,” says Samantaray.

At the time of filing of this story, 81 bodies had remained unidentified and DNA samples of 70 of them awaited test results. The official toll increased to 291 on June 17 after a man from Bihar succumbed to his injuries in Cuttack’s SCB hospital where initially about 200 people were being treated. While some have been discharged, many remain in critical condition in the ICU.

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Among those who are still at the hospital is Ashok Kumar Singh, who survived the crash with seven cracked bones, including three ribs. He wonders how his life would be once he is discharged. Singh, a migrant worker from Bihar, was on his way to Chennai for a work opportunity to save up money for his daughter’s wedding. “I have five daughters and two sons who are minors. How will I feed them now with my back broken? I have been told not to do hard labour for at least a year.  I hope the government or railways provides us with jobs,” he says.

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Union Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who visited the accident site on June 3, was expected to arrive in Bahanaga again on June 20 to give “maanpatras” (certificates) to 400 villagers and locals who helped save lives in the triple train accident. Many in the village are expecting or have been promised government jobs.

Singh wonders what victims like him would get out of it. “No one is coming to meet us. We have already been forgotten,” says Singh’s wife Asha Devi as she fixes the pipe draining the bad blood out of her husband’s back in the crowded SCB hospital where she and her husband are currently sharing a general ward with four other victims.

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Local Heroes and Saviours

Back in Bahanaga, residents can still smell the stench of the disaster that permeates in the air.

Describing what happened that night, Deepak Ranjan Behara, ex-Army man and a local resident, who was one of the first responders to the incident, states that he was playing with his boys in the school’s field—where the bodies would be later kept—when they heard a crashing sound and rushed to the spot.

“For some time, we could see nothing as a thick cloud of smoke enveloped the area,” he recalls. The lights had gone out and the stench of burnt iron and melted skin was permeating the heavy coastal air, creating a nauseous miasma. Behara and other villagers can still feel that smell eking out of their pores.

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Balasore MLA Swarup Das at his office Photo: Sandipan Chatterjee

Behara has served in the Indian Army for 17 years. Currently, he mentors local youths and encourages them to think of careers in the armed forces and other related fields.

“I think my army instincts kicked in after the initial shock and I jumped in the smoke. The local youths seemed to get inspired by that and started entering the coaches to pull out those who were alive,” he adds.

There was blood and mangled bodies everywhere. “People were screaming. There was a very real fear of electrocution. And yet, the villages did their best to save as many lives as they could,” says Ronald Das, a local youth from Bahanaga. He was intrinsic in saving the life of one of the loco-pilots injured in the accident.

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Teenagers Jayanta Das and Sachin Sethi also recall similar experiences. “In one instance, there was a woman and her child stuck in two opposite locations. The baby was deeply buried under rubble and may already have been dead so we tried to save the mother. But she would not cooperate as she wanted us to save the child. In the end, we could not save either,” recalls Das.

For Sethi, the most traumatic thing was seeing the mangled bodies. “It was like a horror movie. Our clothes were soaked in blood. We carried the bodies with our bare hands,” he says.

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Behara claims that he and his team of local boys helped bring out 100 persons from the wreckage. He cannot confirm how many of them were dead but he knows that 21 people were saved.

Swarup Das, a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Balasore, agrees that had it not been for the locals, many more lives would have been lost. “The tremendous work done by the people of Balasore and Soro reflects the culture of compassion and welfarism that the BJD rule has engendered in Odisha,” Das states. He adds that the states’ in-depth experience with disaster management due to the repeated cyclones has made them more adept at handling crisis situations.

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“In cyclones, there is time to plan. This was totally unforeseen. No one expects a tragedy of this scale to unfold suddenly. But the people of Odisha rose to the challenge and saved hundreds of lives with their quick response and well-coordinated rescue and treatment work,” he says.

Aftermath and the Blame Game

Many in Bahanaga, including those involved in the rescue operations, have raised doubts about the official mortality count. Many locals claim that there were at least 1,000 dead. “Many bodies left from here in ambulances. We don’t know where all they went,” claims Raju Singh, a construction worker from Bahanaga village.

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In Bahanaga and Pathorpentha, the fear of unclaimed bodies has led to mass pujas (prayer events). Loudspeakers blaring “shanti shlokas” (chants) have been put everywhere and locals claim they are seeing ghosts. In fact, the local school building where the bodies were kept on June 2-3 has since been demolished after locals claimed the building had become “haunted”. Local administration now says that a new school will be built there. Behara, who has grown up in the area, states that it isn’t surprising that people are being superstitions, considering the scale of the accident and the high number of human casualties.

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At the time of filing of this story, 81 bodies had remained unidentified and DNA samples of 70 of them awaited test results.

Swarup Das, however, dismisses rumours of any attempted cover-up of the mortality figures. “At the time I and my team reached the spot a few hours after the accident, we had to move aside all the people there who were recording the tragedy. If we were hiding bodies, someone would have recorded it. Because of the swift response of the state, including locals, district and state government authorities, at least 200 more lives were saved,” says Das.

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He adds that the incident should be a wake-up call for the Indian Railways. “The Railways has done a good job with the restoration of the train lines, the relief work and the distribution of compensation. But the accident shows how unprotected and risky the general compartments are. Our country is dependent on the railways. Crores of people travel every day.”

He says instead of investing in bullet trains and more Vande Bharats, the government should be investing in increasing the safety of the general coaches. “If the government is not thinking of developing these general compartment coaches, then it is not thinking about the majority of the population,” says Das.

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Probe Politics

Patnaik, the president of Mo Parivar, also raised questions on the Railways’ decision to involve the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

“Being a former member of the CBI, I can positively say that they have no experience in handling this kind of railway accident. Why did the railways hand over the case to the CBI without a full-fledged internal investigation to check if all systems were working fine? The moment you bring in the CBI, it makes it a question of “who did it”. But where is Railway’s accountability in this?” he asks.

Narasingh Mishra, Opposition leader and Bolangir MLA from the Congress, alleges that the BJD has been working as the B-team of the BJP. “Why have they not sought the resignation of the railway minister despite such a huge oversight? Why are they not seeking accountability from the Centre?” he asks.

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He reminds that Lal Bahadur Shastri stepped down from his post as railways minister on moral grounds after the Ariyalur train accident in Tamil Nadu in 1956 that led to 142 deaths. In 1999, the present Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, resigned as the railway minister after the Gaisal train tragedy in which 285 lives were lost.

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Tragedy Trail (Clockwise from top) The demolished Bahanaga High School where bodies were kept; A Maha Yagya being organised in the village; A couple living in Bahanaga village; Mansi Rai (L) and Deepti Sahu (R) helped in rescue work after the accident Photo: Sandipan Chatterjee

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Mishra claims that with the 2024 elections looming ahead, the BJD and the BJP are working in collusion to not let the matter affect polls. “No doubt the BJD government and local administration have accomplished a challenging feat in terms of rescue operation and mitigation of crisis. But the politicisation of the accident is unfortunate,” he states.

Following an initial sketchy statement on the incident by the railways, Railway Minister Vaishnaw, after his visit to the spot, had indicated at the possibility of a human error, stating that “someone” modified the “point machine and the configuration of the track” which led to the collision.

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A multi-disciplinary joint inspection by railway supervisors had also concluded that a green signal was erroneously given to the Coromandel Express to pass through on the designated main line where the goods train was already stationed, and then the signal was taken off.  The train entered the loop line, and rammed into the goods train which was filled with iron ore.

“There are two types of enquiries currently going on—the Commission of Railway Safety (CRS) enquiry and the CBI investigation. The CRS is looking into all aspects involving the Railways, while the CBI is investigating the sabotage or human error angle,” informs Aditya Chaudhary, Chief Public Relations Officer (CPRO), South Eastern Railway. The CRS works under the administrative aegis of the Ministry of Civil Aviation of the Government of India. The CBI formally took over the investigation on June 6. Results of both investigations are awaited.

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“The decision to involve the CBI came from the ministry. Due to the sheer scale of the accident, there is a need for conducting a holistic enquiry into the matter,” Chaudhary says.

A report on preliminary enquiries by the railways, including site reports prepared by the supervisors from across the departments, has been submitted to both, the CBI, and the CRS.

Bahanaga: Coping With Tragedy

Bahanagha has been stormed by an onslaught of arriving politicians and religious congregations. On June 17, the Brahman Samity, Balasore Chapter, organised a “Maha Vishnu Yagya” to “purify” the village of the evil spirits that caused the accident and to “help the spirits of the accident victims wandering in villages to cross over to the other side.”

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“These are not natural deaths. Many of the bodies did not get proper cremation. Their atmas (spirits) need to be released so that they don’t haunt villagers,” Brahman Samaj working President Dr Kshitishwar Das says.

Incidentally, Railway Police Force (RPF) Inspector Barun K Behara, who was shooing away journalists from the accident site on June 16, was spotted sitting in the puja as a special guest. He refused to comment on his involvement with the event, which was also used to felicitate local heroes. Balasore MP Das and Soro MP Parshuram Dhada attended the event briefly to honour the locals with certificates.

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Perhaps, that is how one copes with a tragedy—with ghost stories, with pujas, with rumours and speculation and with rewards and politics. But for those who lost their families, like the now motherless Dharmendra Patra, compensations don’t matter. All they have are endless questions—questions that will haunt them for life.

“Why won’t they return her body to us? Why did we even let her travel on her own? We don’t even know what she went through in her last moments,” says Dharmendra’s father Arjuna as they take the train back to Balasore from Bhubasneshwar. They are sitting in an overcrowded general compartment, just like the one Monjumoni was travelling in on that fateful day. Not much has change, it seems, even after the loss of 291 lives.

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