AMRITSAR • India's railway officials and local community leaders have traded blame over an accident last Friday (Oct 19) in which a train ran over scores of people gathered on the railway tracks for a festival in the northern city of Amritsar.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh told reporters on Saturday that 59 people had died, with 57 injured in the accident, and that an official inquiry will be carried out over the next four weeks.
A crowd had formed near the tracks on the city's fringe for the burning of effigies, as part of a major Hindu festival last Friday when the train sped through the gathering in darkness, officials and witnesses said.
Grieving relatives and residents, some of whom were still scouring the bloodied fields for the belongings of their loved ones, said there was no warning from the train as it sped down the tracks just as firecrackers went off in the annual Dussehra festival.
"This has never happened before. The railways should have stopped or slowed down the train," said Ms Deep Kumari, who watched the festival from the terrace of her house.
"Everyone here knows this effigy-burning happens here and there is a big crowd."
India's state railways, largely built during British colonial rule, have long faced criticism for their safety record.
A political focus on keeping fares low for the 23 million passengers who use the network daily has resulted in decades of under-investment in rail safety infrastructure, critics say.
Data from Parliament in July showed that 49,790 people were killed by trains on India's tracks between 2015 and last year.
Friday's accident was the worst in years but Mr Manoj Sinha, the junior minister in charge of running the world's fourth largest rail system, said they could not be held responsible for people gathered on the tracks.
"Railways cannot be blamed, railways were not informed about the ceremony.
"Why was it organised there? There was no notice given to the railways," he told reporters as he visited the site early yesterday.
Clothes were strewn and there were blood marks around the narrow railway lane where the accident occurred.
Police said they were still looking to ascertain the death toll, as some bodies were mangled beyond recognition.
Sporadic protests broke out near the site, with protesters calling for action against the local authorities and the train driver.
Witnesses said that Friday's ceremony was delayed by a few hours because the chief guest was running late, which meant the event coincided with the train's scheduled arrival.
Anger turned on Ms Navjot Kaur Sidhu, a former Punjab state lawmaker who arrived late for the burning of the effigies and then left just before the accident occurred.
But Ms Kaur said effigies were burnt at six places in Amritsar and most of them were in fields near the tracks.
"The (railway authorities) should have at least issued directions to slow down the (train). Such a big mistake," Ms Kaur said.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE