By Sudarshan Varadhan
AMRITSAR, India (Reuters) - India's railway officials and local community leaders traded blame on Saturday over an accident in which a train ran over scores of people gathered on the railway tracks for a festival in the northern city of Amritsar, killing at least 59.
A large crowd had formed near the tracks on the city's fringe for the burning of effigies as part of a major Hindu festival on Friday when the train sped through the gathering in darkness, officials and witnesses said.
Grieving relatives and residents, some of whom were still scouring the bloodied fields for belongings of their loved ones, said there was no warning from the train as it rolled down the tracks just as firecrackers exploded in the sky in the annual Dusshera festival.
"I've been seeing this event every Dusshera from here and this has never happened before, the railways should have stopped or slowed down the train," said Deep Kumari, who watched the festival from the terrace of her house. "Everyone here knows this effigy burning happens here and there is a big crowd."
India's state railways, largely built during British colonial rule, have long faced criticism for their safety record. A political focus on keeping fares low for the 23 million passengers who use the network daily has resulted in decades of underinvestment in rail safety infrastructure, critics say.
Data from parliament in July showed that 49,790 people were killed by trains on the tracks in India between 2015 to 2017.
Friday's accident was the worst in years but Manoj Sinha, the junior minister in charge of running the world's fourth largest rail system, said they couldn't be held responsible for people gathered on tracks.
"Railways cannot be blamed, railways were not informed about the ceremony. Why was it organised there? There was no notice given to the railways," he told reporters as he visited the site early on Saturday, surrounded by officials and police.
Clothes were strewn and there were blood marks around the narrow railway lane on the outskirts of Amritsar where the accident occurred. Police said they were still looking to ascertain the number of dead as some bodies were mangled beyond recognition.
Video footage running on television stations and social media showed giant effigies burning in the distance and crackers going off while the train runs through in the foreground. Many of the victims were shooting videos on their mobile phones or taking selfies.
Witnesses also said that Friday's ceremony was delayed by a few hours because the chief guest was running late, which meant the event ultimately coincided with the train's scheduled arrival.
Anger turned on Navjyot Kaur Sidhu, a former Punjab state lawmaker who came late for the burning of the effigies and then left just before the accident occurred.
Bikram Singh Majitha, a leader of the regional Akali Dal party, said the effigy burning usually happens at sunset, not later.
"You can see from some of the videos that people shot that as soon as the effigy was lit, you can the train coming from the other side. It was horrific, the organizers must answer why the delay," he said.
But Kaur, whose husband, Navjyot Singh Sidhu, is a former Indian Test cricketer and now a state minister, said effigies were burnt at six places in Amritsar and most of them were in fields near the tracks.
"The (railway authorities) should have at least issued directions to slow down the speed of the train. Such a big mistake," Kaur said on television.
(Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Sam Holmes)