Mamata Banerjee on Saturday visited the railway accident site near Balasore in Odisha and asked in front of railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw why anti-collision devices were not installed in the trains that met with the accident on Friday evening.
The Bengal chief minister also blamed the lack of “coordination” in the railway ministry for the tragedy which has claimed over 288 lives, including at least 31 from Bengal.
“The railway safety commissioner will conduct an inquiry into the accident.... When I was the railway minister, I had introduced anti-collision devices. This (technology) prevents collisions. If anti-collision devices were installed, this mishap could have been averted,” Mamata said in Balasore, before asking why this technology was not installed in the trains.
Mamata, who was monitoring the situation from her Kalighat home since Friday evening and sent a team to the accident site, reached Balasore on a helicopter on Saturday morning. She spoke to the Union railway minister, who had reached by then.
Mamata, who had helmed the railway ministry thrice, drew media attention as reporters asked her why the accident happened and how they could be averted. Mamata, who earlier expressed reservations about the affairs of the railway ministry several times, alleged neglect.
NDRF personnel carry out rescue work at the train accident site in Balasore on Saturday. PTI picture
“Nowadays, the rail department is neglected.... They do not care for passenger safety.... The situation is getting from bad to worse. The railways should be given special focus. Earlier there was a special budget for the railways. I feel somewhere there is a lack of coordination,” Mamata told the media in Balasore.
Vaishnaw tried to contest some of her claims. The two also differed on the number of deaths.
Mamata said she had information that the toll was about 500. “There should be a thorough inquiry into the accident…. Why did so many (people) die? According to my information, about 500 people died in the accident,” she said.
Vaishnaw objected. “As per the Odisha government, the death toll is 238,” he said.
Mamata replied the toll of 238 was Friday night’s figure. “Rescue work is still on in three coaches.... The death toll will go up further.”
Sources close to Mamata said she decided to visit the accident site to send out the message that she always stood by victims of tragedies. That the two affected passenger trains had several Bengal residents was the other reason.
A media release from Nabanna, issued on Saturday afternoon, put the number of deaths of people from Bengal at 31 till Saturday morning. Around 544 people from Bengal were injured, it added.
Twenty-five persons from Bengal were admitted to hospitals in Odisha and 11 more to hospitals in Bengal.
“The number of casualties can go up as many bodies are yet to be identified. The Bengal government is working with the railways and the Odisha government in Balasore,” said a senior official.
Mamata announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to the next of kin of victims from Bengal and Rs 1 lakh each to those seriously injured. Those with minor injuries will get Rs 50,000 each.
Senior officials said that a number of injured passengers were brought to Bengal in two buses. At least 40 doctors from Bengal have been working at the accident site and 70 ambulances have been sent to Balasore.
"Four IAS officers are stationed at Balasore and two IAS officers are on standby in West Midnapore (the Bengal district nearby) for coordination," said a source.
The state has asked all districts to get in touch with the West Midnapore DM so that passengers who reach Midnapore can be sent home.
A train with 700 passengers from Balasore reached Howrah in the evening, a source said.