India's Railway Ministry has blamed monsoon rains and rumors for last month's fatal stampede on an old railway foot overbridge in financial capital Mumbai, that claimed the lives of 23 people.
The tragedy occurred during the morning rush hour of September 29 at Elphinstone station, which connects two major local lines in Mumbai. Apart from 23 deaths, more than 30 people were also injured in the incident.
Two weeks on, a five-member probe panel set up by the Railway Ministry has claimed in its report that monsoon rains which forced people outside at the ticket counters to rush to the already jammed staircase for cover, led to the stampede.
"The committee concluded that the incident occurred due to sudden downpour of heavy rains and accumulation of commuters on FOB (foot overbridge) and staircase at around 10:00 hrs (local time) onwards," the Ministry of Railways said in a statement.
According to the probe panel, the situation got out of control when a local vendor dropped a bundle of flowers and shouted "my flowers fell" that commuters "mistook" as the bridge fell. "This may have possibly triggered panic and led to the stampede," the statement said.
The committee submitted its probe report after carefully studying the testimonies of the witnesses and written statements of injured people, and analyzing closed-circuit TV channels footage of the incident, the ministry said.
However, a senior official said Thursday that the probe report apparently absolves railway officials of any negligence in the incident. "The panel has failed to point out in its report the delay on part of officials to sanction a new bridge to replace the old one," he said.
Soon after the incident, local right-wing Shiv Sena party had blamed former Indian Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu for ignoring their repeated requests to construct a new bridge at the station, which they said could have helped avert the "public massacre."
Another right-wing party in Mumbai went further by threatening to stall India's bullet train project till the Indian government took care of passenger safety in the railway network.
Facing flak, the Railway Ministry has ordered another probe by a former head of India's central watchdog to find out what led to the delay in building a new bridge.
"Railway Board has decided to constitute a high-level expert committee to inquire into the reasons for delay in the whole process and suggest ways and means to ensure that such delays can be minimized in future," Anil Saxena, Indian Railway Ministry spokesperson, told media.
Indian Railways is one of the world's largest train networks, carrying millions of passengers daily, but its safety record is very poor and the crumbling railway network has now become a perennial problem, with train derailments being a common feature.
(ASIA PACIFIC DAILY)