Since January 26, 2015, no one from ‘Backward Mohalla’ in Balak village, Hisar, has gone to Panghal village, 16 km away, for Nausarpeer mela, an annual fair that’s eagerly awaited in these parts.
Four years ago, that foggy morning, 13 members of an extended family from the village, who were on their way to the fair in a mini truck, had been crushed to death by the Dhuri-Sirsa passenger train at an unmanned level crossing between Barwala and Dhansu. Eyewitnesses said the train dragged the vehicle for at least 200 metres. Five among the dead were children.
In December 2016, the level crossing was replaced with an underbridge. A big signboard near it now urges people to avoid the bridge if there is water-logging, common during the monsoon months.
Through the day, farmers from nearby villages cross the underbridge on bullock carts and tractors, their stereos blaring loud Haryanvi music. Youngsters on bikes and cycles also use the underbridge.
“When it rains, the bridge is shut for a few days. There is waterlogging… Nobody cleans the drains. But at least people are not dying now,” says Dalbir Singh, 60, a farmer from nearby Sarsod village.
Bijender Singh, 38, another farmer, recalls how before the underbridge was built, villagers would remember the timings of all trains to ensure that they crossed over safely. “But it wasn’t of much help as trains were never on time,” he says.
Work on the underbridge started in September 2016, says Karan Singh, Additional Divisional Railway Manager, Ambala division. “It cost Rs 1.76 crore. Before that, we had deployed staff to stop traffic manually,” says Singh, adding that at least 20-25 trains pass by daily and no accidents have been reported since the bridge was made. “The 80 unmanned level crossings in Ambala division have been eliminated,” he says.
Eight kilometres from the underbridge, in Backward Mohalla, 57-year-old Bimla Devi breaks down while talking about the seven members of her family who died in the accident — her two sons Sanjeev, 35, and Vijay, 28, daughters-in-law Sunita and Anita and three grandchildren, of ages 10, 4 and 1.
“I never knew none of them will return… This empty home devours me now,” she says, sobbing uncontrollably.
Bimla Devi’s sister-in-law Santro’s son Bajrang Lal, 31, daughter-in-law Kavita, 26, and two grandchildren Pritam, 2, and Deepak, 4, also died in the accident. She is now raising her five-year-old grandson, Sachin.
Two other members of Devi’s extended family died in the accident — Pooja, 26, who was nine months pregnant and Kiran, 22. Pooja’s son Nitin had accompanied them that day but survived. “Nitin underwent a major surgery… he got a new lease of life. He was just five then,” says Nitin’s grandmother Sharda, 62.
Another survivor Anil, 21, doesn’t talk much about the accident. “It has affected him deeply,” says his mother Bala. “The government had promised compensation of Rs 50,000 for the injured but we haven’t got it,” she adds. Families of those who died received Rs 3 lakh as compensation.
Asked about the new underbridge, Devi is hesitant. After a brief pause she says, “Pehlan hota to maare bachhe bach jaate (Had this bridge come up earlier, my children would have been saved).”