Odisha: Search for the dead & closure continues a year after Bahanaga railway crash

One year since the tragic crash, the family members of the victims live with a constant void and uncertainty.
Bahanaga railway station
Bahanaga railway stationPhoto | Express

While leaving home for Chennai on June 2 last year, Sk Zamalludin promised his wife Mafoja Bibi that he would return with decent savings so that he can take her to a good gynaecologist. Seventeen years into their marriage, the couple from Uttar Chausathibadi in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, had remained childless.

However, little did Mafoja know that Zamalludin’s promise and her dream to be a mother will remain unfulfilled. The 37-year-old mason was part of an 11-member team which boarded the ill-fated Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express which collided with a goods train at Bahanaga Bazar station in Balasore district leading to the death of 296 passengers.

Exactly a year after the tragedy, India’s deadliest railway crash since 1995, Mafoja is still waiting. “My uncle, brother-in-law and other relatives searched the spot at Bahanaga, hospitals and temporary mortuaries but there was no trace of his body. His father provided the DNA sample but it did not match with the stored bodies. I am so unfortunate that I could not even get his body,” sobs Mafoja, still mourning her loss and now living at her father’s house.

Ex-gratia promised by the Ministry of Railways and the WB government eludes her as the body of Zamalludin is deemed ‘untraceable.’ From the 11 of the group, only one survived the mishap. Eight deceased passengers could be identified while two are still missing. One of them is Zamalludin.

One year since the tragic crash, the family members of the victims live with a constant void and uncertainty. Around 660 km from South 24 Parganas, 55-year-old Sanju Devi of Misraulia village in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar gets inconsolable recounting days she spent searching for her only son’s body at AIIMS, Bhubaneswar where the 81 bodies were kept for identification post the tragedy.

“We had identified the body at AIIMS and submitted the required documents. Another person came and claimed it to be his son. We provided our DNA samples and waited for at least a month. The officials said the samples did not match and denied us the body. We had to return empty handed,” she said.

Many families were able to identify and cremate or bury their loved ones but for some like Sanju Devi, the search was like a bottomless pit.

The Odisha government had to cremate 28 unclaimed bodies nearly four months after the incident as the DNA samples of claimants did not match. Out of over 150 DNA samples collected from the victims’ families, samples of 44 claimants did not match, depriving their kin of the ex-gratia and compensation package provided by the Ministry of Railways and the governments of their respective states. According to experts, since the bodies were received after more than 30 hours of their death - some after 48 hours - it was a herculean task for forensic labs to conduct DNA sequencing and profiling due to the poor quality of samples.

“The DNA sequencing of bodies at an advanced state of decomposing is always a problem, particularly if the ideal body remains like molar teeth are not available or muscle tissue quality is bad. Embalming also was delayed as the bodies were received late at AIIMS. In some bodies, quality DNA samples could not be extracted due to the delay in embalming,” said an official, who was involved in the process.

Number anomaly

As per the data compiled by the railway authorities and Odisha government, 296 passengers perished in the train crash and 636 passengers were injured, 177 of them critically. The Railways announced Rs 10 lakh ex-gratia for the kin of the deceased and Rs 2 lakh for grievously injured passengers and Rs 50,000 for minor injuries.

The chief personnel officer (admin) of South Eastern Railway (SER) Mahendra Kumar Prasad in September last year informed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) that ex-gratia has been paid to 267 families who were handed over dead bodies and two death cases are yet to be settled due to lack of documentations. The Odisha goverment, at the same time, informed the NHRC that 236 deaths have been registered out of which 230 death certificates have been issued so far. The certificates of the remaining six persons have not been issued due to non-availability of requisite documents. The authorities have sought documents from the respective families to issue the death certificates.

Bahanaga railway station
‘Bahanaga tragedy aftermath reposed faith in humanity’: Odisha CM

A day after the incident, the Odisha government scaled down the number of fatalities to 275 from 288 announced earlier. Gradually, the figure went up to 296 as 11 passengers succumbed while undergoing treatment in hospitals.

Meanwhile, the NHRC has directed the chairman of Railway Board and Chief Secretary of Odisha to submit a detailed report within six weeks after the anomaly in the number of casualties and deaths registered were found in the reports submitted before the apex rights panel by both the authorities on the train accident.

Dark memories linger

It’s been a year. Yet, dark memories of that evening are still vivid in the minds of people who were witness to the horrific rail accident and its aftermath. Many of them still grapple with the emotional toll it took on them.

The Coromandel Express had entered the passing loop instead of the main line a few metres before the station at full throttle and collided with a goods train. Due to the high speed of the Coromandel Express, its 21 coaches derailed and three of those collided with the incoming SMVT Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express on the adjacent track.

People, who had halted at both the sides of the railway gate, and shopkeepers and locals were the first responders. They rushed to the spot, climbed on top of the wreckage and pulled out the injured trapped in the mangled coaches.

Abinash Pati was at his electric equipment shop when he heard the crash. “We heard a loud rumble followed by screams that I can never forget. Some of the injured were hurled far away from the bogies, some were still stuck inside. I had never seen such a huge number of bodies at one place. I called my friends and started pulling out the injured passengers,” he recounted. Soon, the rescue teams - fire fighters, Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force and National Disaster Response Force arrived. The teams were at work for several days to clear out the debris.

Mafoja Bibi, Sanju Devi
Mafoja Bibi, Sanju Devi

Unkept promises

Pain, loss and memories aside, a year after the tragedy, promises made by local administration and Ministry of Railways for the development of Bahanaga railway station and its periphery remain unfulfilled.

Following the crash, Union Minister for Railways Ashwini Vaishnaw had vowed to prioritise development of Bahanaga railway station and upgrade infrastructure, enhance safety measures and improve overall operational efficiency.

The station continues to operate from a dingy room. Two small sheds provide cover to passengers on the platforms along both the Up and Down lines and there are no cold drinking water facilities. The waiting room gets filled with rain water even after a small spell of shower due to lack of a proper drainage system.

Critical infrastructure upgrades, including shifting of the panel room, construction of sheds on the platforms and waiting room with amenities have been delayed. Only six passenger trains halt at the station forcing thousands of passengers from the region to travel to Balasore to board Express trains.

The Railway Minister, a member in the Rajya Sabha from the state, had sanctioned Rs 1.55 crore from the MPLAD scheme for various development works of the periphery. He had also announced that Rs 1 crore would be released from Indian Railways for the renovation of Bahanaga hospital.

Bahanaga sarpanch Brajendra Panda said nothing has changed. The station’s condition has worsened in the last one year. “The standpost for drinking water has been damaged. Since it does not have a shed and the taps dispense hot water throughout the day, people make their own arrangement,” he said. A new station building which is under construction for over three years is yet to be completed. Railway authorities said Rs 1 crore has been spent on various development works in the area and an advanced life support ambulance has been provided to Balasore hospital. CPRO of SER Aditya Chaudhary said the station development plan is on schedule and will be executed as promised.

“There has been a lot of work on safety aspects. Triple lock system has been adopted at all goomties and availability of complete diagram is being ensured for all stations, level crossings and auto goomties. No work is being undertaken without approved drawings,” he added.

The construction of a much-needed railway flyover near Bahanaga station too looks a distant dream.

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