ON MOST mornings, Juthika Atta (34) sits with a pile of papers, along with daughter Poulomi, a Class VII student, before leaving her home, at Salkia in Howrah, to knock on the doors of railway officials, district magistrates and government officers.
It’s been this way for the past seven years, ever since Juthika’s husband, Prasenjit Atta (42) went ‘missing’ in the Jnaneswari Express derailment — one of the country’s worst train accidents.
A railway contractor and the only earning member of the family, Prasenjit was travelling from Howrah to Bhuswal on the Express, when it derailed and was hit by a goods train coming from the opposite direction, near Sordiha station in West Midnapore, on May 28, 2010.
The accident, allegedly due to sabotage of railway tracks by Maoists, killed at least 141 passengers. But Prasenjit is among 18 people, hailing from 16 families, who were labelled ‘missing’ as their bodies were never found; DNA tests on dismembered limbs have not yielded results.
In the initial years of the accident, Juthika says she “ran from one officer to the other” just to know the “fate of her husband.” But now, she just wants a death certificate. “I have been told that after seven years I would get the death certificate. I am still running from pillar to post,” says Juthika, whose family now makes ‘paper bags’ to earn a living.
The death certificate would mean a chance of a job on humanitarian grounds, and would allow Juthika access to her husband’s life insurance money. “We were promised a railway job, but without death certificate, I cannot apply. My husband took a gold loan and we lost all the ornaments since we could not provide a death certificate. The money we got as compensation we spent on repaying loans my husband took. I have to fend for my family,” she says.
Juthika filed a petition in the Calcutta High Court after the incident, but had to withdraw it after the first hearing, since she could not afford the lawyer’s fees. The families say they received compensation money from Railways, the Centre and state government on the premise that their loved ones were “dead” but the death certificates have so far eluded them.
Rajesh Bhatra (52) has also given up on finding his daughter alive. A resident of Howrah, he lost wife Indudevi (40) and son Saurav (17) – who died of complications a year later – to the accident. His daughter Sneha (14), who was travelling with her mother and brother on the Jnaneswari Express, has never been found. “Either the government should give me back my daughter or give me her death certificate. I have spent seven years looking for her…I felt she was alive, but could have become mentally disturbed,” says Bhatra, who suffered a heart attack last month and has been advised rest by doctors. “We, the 16 families, don’t know what happened to our daughters, wives, husbands and relatives. The government did not even care to give us death certificates. Can you imagine how we feel?” Bhatra adds.
The families, some of whom The Indian Express visited, say they approached then Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhatta- charya, demonstrated near Writers’ Building (state secretariat) and wrote to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and officials at the Centre and Railways, only to be turned away.
“In these years we have tried hard, approached everyone. I have changed my residence because I could no longer live in the house where we stayed together. The memories of my wife and young son haunt me till now,” says Surinder Singh, a driver from Oriya para in Howrah. The bodies of his wife Neelam (33) and son Rahul (17) were never found or identified. “I still remember, I had identified a severed leg of my wife when I reached the accident spot. But someone took it away and cremated it as their own. There were only smashed body parts,” Singh adds.
Sanjay Ghosh, CPRO, South Eastern railways, says the onus is on the state government to provide death certificates.
“The family members should approach state authorities. It is they who will provide them with death certificates,” he says. Jagdish Prasad Meena, West Midnapore DM, refused to comment.