Chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday reached out to people from Bengal affected by the triple-train tragedy in Balasore, announcing financial assistance, jobs and free ration to around 1,700 families.
At a gathering at Netaji Indoor Stadium in Calcutta, Mamata vowed to take all possible measures for the well-being of the families of the dead and those who have suffered injuries.
“I returned to Calcutta this morning after visiting the injured persons admitted to different hospitals in Odisha and Midnapore. I was eagerly waiting to meet you and stand by you with whatever we can offer. Our government will always be with you,” the chief minister said after handing over appointment letters and cheques to 51 families on the dais.
The assistance was “over and above what the railways are offering”, Mamata said, putting the death toll from Bengal at 103.
The Bengal government is offering a job for a family member of each victim, free ration and monthly financial assistance of Rs 2,000 for three months, and also free education for 100 children from the affected families.
According to the chief minister, three persons from Bengal had suffered permanent disability, 172 had suffered severe injuries and 635 had suffered minor injuries. She added that 799 migrant workers, who were not injured in the accident, had undergone trauma and would be taken care of.
The large number of migrants affected by the accident has spawned a debate in Bengal, with the BJP ecosystem alleging that people were forced to travel to other states for work because of lack of opportunities here.
Through her humanitarian gesture, Mamata, who has criticised the Centre and the railways for failing to ensure passenger safety, appeared to be trying to change the narrative around migrant labourers.
During the programme, Mamata asked ministers and officials to explore employment opportunities for migrant workers and their family members within the state.
"Every passenger who travels by train is insured and gets Rs 10 lakh if he or she dies... During my time (as railway minister), we used to give Rs 15 lakh each. But here, whatever we are doing is from our own coffers," Mamata said.
The railways are providing an ex gratia of Rs 10 lakh to the family of each of the deceased, Rs 2 lakh to those who are severely injured and Rs 50,000 to those who have suffered minor injuries.
Sources close to Mamata said the programme had been organised to "establish that the Bengal government had been more sympathetic towards the victims". The effort to reach out to even those who emerged unscathed from the accident was billed as the first such attempt by any state government.
Sources in Nabanna said the state administration had worked on a war footing to collate data related to those who were on the two passenger trains — the Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express and the Sir M. Visvesvaraya Terminal (Bangalore)-Howrah Superfast Express — on Friday and got in touch with them to bring them to the programme.
"The chief minister gave special instructions to ensure that the benefits from the state government reached the victims at the earliest.... This was a Herculean task and we completed it in the minimum possible time," said a source in Nabanna.
The chief minister, who visited Odisha twice after the accident, has said several times over the past six days that she is concerned about those affected as most of them were either migrant workers or rural people. During the programme on Wednesday, she stressed that the government would look after the accident victims at least for the next six months.
"We have deputed a nodal officer to take care of you (affected families) in every district. They will continue monitoring your situation at least for the next six months. I will ask my district magistrates to provide the phone number of those nodal officers to each of the families. You may contact them for any assistance and they will certainly take care of you," the chief minister said while addressing the gathering at Netaji Indoor Stadium.
Around 2,500 people — including family members of the dead, injured persons and their families and those others who were travelling in the two trains — attended the programme.
Mamata asked her cabinet colleagues Sashi Panja and Chandrima Bhattacharya to find out whether the women from the affected families could be absorbed as Asha (Accredited Social Health Activist) and ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) workers.
The chief minister asked senior civil and police officials to explore gainful employment opportunities for those who were no longer interested in going to other states in search of a livelihood.
The effort to reach out drew applause from those affected.
"They brought us here in an airconditioned bus from our district. We are really happy to witness the human face of our chief minister. I did not expect to receive such respect from the government and the chief minister," said Sandhya Rani Pakhira, a passenger from East Midnapore who suffered multiple injuries, including a fractured right hand.