Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced fierce criticism from opposition parties and social media users over his handling of the train crash that killed at least 300 people and injured more than 850 in Odisha on Friday.
The Congress party has called for the resignation of Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw and accused the government of neglecting multiple safety recommendations and mismanaging the rail network.
Many netizens also slammed Modi for allegedly prioritizing image-building while rescue operations were still underway and families were struggling with the aftermath of the accident. They mocked him for having a cameraman during a review meeting and for visiting the site with a large entourage.
Modi has vowed to punish those responsible for the crash, which he called a “very big, painful and disturbing incident”. He said he had instructed all types of inquiries and that the guilty should get the “harshest punishment”.
He also pledged to look after the families of those killed and injured in the accident and to ensure their well-being. He visited the crash site and some hospitals on Saturday to take stock of the situation and meet with survivors.
A preliminary report indicated that the accident was caused by a signal failure, leading one passenger train to come off the tracks and hit another one. A further freight train was involved in the incident that took place around 7pm local time on Friday.
The railway minister said an issue in the electronic signal system likely caused the accident, but said more would be revealed in a final report. He dismissed the demands for his resignation, saying he was focused on the relief effort and that “this is not the time to do politics”.
The crash was India’s worst railway accident in more than two decades. India’s rail network, which dates back to the 19th century, is one of the largest and busiest in the world but also suffers from aging infrastructure and chronic underinvestment.
Modi has prioritized upgrading the country’s massive rail network, but an automated safety system introduced last year to prevent collisions had not yet been implemented on the eastern Indian route where Friday’s crash occurred.
Many dead bodies remain in the wreckage of the trains, and the death toll is expected to continue rising as more bodies are removed. Video footage showed derailed train coaches and damaged tracks, with rescue teams searching the mangled carriages to pull out survivors.
Passengers who witnessed the crash described it as a “bloodbath” and said they saw “families crushed away” and “limbless bodies”. A school was used as a makeshift morgue, where dead bodies were lying on the bloodstained floor covered with white cloths. Police helped relatives identify their loved ones.