A day after at least 59 people were mowed down by a train as they watched a Ravan effigy being burnt, Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu defended the participation of his wife, former MLA Navjot Kaur Sidhu, in the Dussehra day celebration that did not have all required permissions, and whose organisers appeared to have ignored the proximity of the venue to a busy railway line.
Both Navjot Singh and Navjot Kaur told The Sunday Express separately that announcements were repeatedly made at the Dhobi Ghat Dussehra celebration asking people to beware of passing trains.
“Announcements were made by the organisers every five minutes from the stage asking people to stay clear of the tracks,” Navjot Singh Sidhu said.
The couple were reacting to a video that went viral Saturday, in which a man identified as Sandeep Bawa, a stage manager with the orchestra, is heard drawing the attention of Navjot Kaur Sidhu, the chief guest at the event, towards the crowd, saying “5,000 people are standing on the tracks, watching the show without a worry”.
Navjot Kaur said the same man had made appeals earlier, asking people not to stand on the tracks. She said the Dhobi Ghat function was the fourth programme she attended on Friday, and said “many times, it becomes a political compulsion for a politician to attend such functions”. She said she was finding out if the organisers had taken all permissions.
Navjot Singh Sidhu, the MLA from Amritsar East, in which Dhobi Ghat ground is located, was not present at the function. He was away in Kozhikode. Back in Amritsar on Saturday, he visited the spot and hospitals with Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.
Speaking to The Sunday Express, he pointed to another video clip from the function, showing folk singer Buta Mohammed on the stage announcing that people on the tracks should be mindful of trains.
“Ah linan de utte jehde mere veer khalote ne, thuwanu mainu pata hai ke saari gaddiyan da time pata hai; ke kehdi gaddi kinne vaje langni hai, lekin jis vele uh langdi hai fer puchdi nahi ke agge kaun khada. Is kar ke apna dhyan apaan aap hi rakhna hai. (My brothers who are standing on these rail tracks, I know that you all know about the timings of the trains, which train passes at what time, but whenever it crosses, it does not ask who is standing ahead. That is why we need to be cautious ourselves.)”
Another Congress leader from the area, Ward 46 councillor Shailinder Singh Shelly, said the announcements did not have any effect. “It didn’t work. Most of the crowd comprised migrant labour and they were not listening to us. It might be a language problem. The announcements were being made in Punjabi. Everybody present there was aware that the railway tracks were busy ones. But they did not move,” Shelly told The Sunday Express. The Sidhus blamed the Railways for “negligence”, and hinted at “a conspiracy” against them. Navjot Singh asked why the Railways had given a “clean chit” to the driver when he was driving “at such high speed” through a residential area.
He also claimed the organisers had taken permission from the district administration and police. However, Municipal Commissioner Sonali Giri told The Sunday Express, “No permission was sought from the MC, and none was given from our side.”
The event was organised by Sourav Mithu Madaan whose mother Vijay Madaan is a Congress councillor of Ward 29 in the area. On Saturday, protesters hurled stones at the Madaan residence in New Tehsilpura, a locality close to Dhobi Ghat. Neighbours said the family had locked up and left on Friday night, immediately after the disaster.
The Dussehra celebration is held every year at the ground. Mandeep Singh Manna, a local politician who was earlier associated with the Congress, said he had led the event in earlier years, but it was not held last year after he had refused citing safety concerns.
“Fearing mishaps, I did not organise the event here last year,” Manna said. Manna was not a part of the organising committee this year.
“It is a vulnerable site,” he said. “Officially, the Railways are the not the ones who give permission for this. But verbally we used to request the Railways to ensure caution, and they would agree. The trains would pass at a speed of some 5 km per hour,” he said.
The Dhobi Ghat ground, where the Ravan Dahan was on as DMU 74643 ran over revellers, is a plot measuring around 2,000 square yards. It is surrounded by houses on two sides. The railway tracks run on the third side, and a road on the fourth side goes across Jaura Phatak Crossing gate No. C-27.
A 5-foot wall separates the venue from the tracks, but the tracks occupy higher ground. This is why people were standing on the tracks — for a better view of the celebrations.
People had begun to gather from before 4 pm, but there was no one on the tracks until the celebration began to reach its climax of Ravan Dahan. Between 4 pm and the time DMU 74643 arrived at 6.53 pm, seven trains crossed the mishap site. DMU 74643 passed the site in barely 5-6 seconds, cutting through the people in its path.
The spot is between Mananwala and Amritsar railway stations. The two stations are separated by approximately 10 km, and Jaura Phatak and Ram Bagh gate lie in between.
Records accessed by The Sunday Express show that the 13006 Amritsar-Howrah Mail that started from Amritsar, crossed Ram Bagh gate crossing at 6.52 pm. Railway officials said it is likely to have rolled passed the mishap site, about 1.5 km from Ram Bagh gate, a minute later.
Seeing the approaching Amritsar-Howrah Mail, railway officials said, the crowd gathered in the train’s path moved on to the adjoining line. In the gathering darkness and the din of the fireworks, they did not see or hear DMU 74643. After the accident near Jaura Phatak, DMU 74643 crossed Ram Bagh gate at 6.54 pm, records show.
“A DMU usually runs at an average speed of 91 kmph. But since the driver applied brakes after sensing danger, the speed at the time of impact might have been 57-68 kmph. A DMU takes about 700 metres to come to a halt in case of an emergency,” Amrit Singh, station director, Amritsar, told The Sunday Express.
Amrit Singh said: “The Howrah train was the first to pass. Both trains passed the mishap site within 30 seconds of each other. When the Amritsar-Howrah train crossed the spot, the Ravan effigy had still not gone up in flames. The train’s horn was audible, and people cleared the track and got on to the second track. But just then, the crackers started bursting and the effigy started burning. The DMU reached the spot almost simultaneously.”
Singh added: “No one could hear the DMU’s horn due to the loud noise of the crackers. People can sense any train in the night due to vibration on the railway track, the train’s light and the horn. DMU is a small train and it does not create much vibration on the track. People had their attention focussed on the light and noise created by the burning of the effigy.”
A report prepared by the Railways mentions the “time of incident” as “18:55 hrs (approximately)”. The driver of the Amritsar-Howrah Mail was called back from Ludhiana to record his statement at Amritsar. A substitute driver took the train forward on its journey.