Dr. Fakira Mohan Nahak


Life is a journey. Life is a pilgrimage. Life is full of uncertainties. There are countless such definitions of life. To enjoy the life and accept it as it comes, forty-two pilgrims started their journey in a bus to visit different parts of northern India and made the pilgrimage on September 24, 2007. All were from different parts of Ganjam district like Polasara, Buguda, Khallikote, Kodala, Rambha, Kabisuryanagar, Beguniapara and other areas.

The bus, which had taken them all, had already toured Gaya, Mathura, Vrindavan and Agra before reaching Haridwar. With great joy, the pilgrims paid tribute to their ancestors in Gaya. But they did not know that in a very short time, they would be getting tribute by their kin and kith and their pilgrimage would be their final journey.

Yes, that was October 11, 2007. It is about 5.30 in the afternoon. The news desk of ETV Odia was full of activities. Suddenly, the National Desk of the network announced that a passenger bus returning from Badrinath Darshan had plunged into the Alaknanda River near Vishnuprayag in Chamoli, Uttarakhand. 42 passengers were killed. All pilgrims are from Odisha. Efforts are being made by local police and rescue teams to recover the bodies.

The newspaper clipping of that news published the next day

The entire news desk was in sheer shock. Silence overruled for a while. Then the breaking news went on air. ETV’s Chamoli-Haridwar correspondent Ashish Mishra was giving all the updates. He kept on updating about the rescue operation, identification of dead bodies and details of other progress. By then the audience was already in shock. Frequent phone calls were coming to the ETV News Desk. All the calls were from relatives of the pilgrims. Everyone wanted to know about their loved ones.

Kith and kin of the deceased pilgrims are watching ETV Odia at Polasara with tearful eyes.

Rangadhar Panda, the channel’s Berhampur correspondent was alerted from the Hyderabad News Desk. With the help of cameraman Mrityunjaya, he started collecting information from rural Ganjama bout the deceased. The present Secretary to Chief Minister (5T) V. Karthikeyan Pandian was the collector of Ganjam district. Manmohan Samal was the Minister of Revenue and Disaster Management.

Rangadhar Panda reporting for ETV Odia

The ETV network played a key role in establishing communication between the Ganjam district administration, the state government and the Uttarakhand government and the Chamoli district administration. Ardhendu Shekhar and cameraman Pawan Negi, who worked for ETV’s Delhi Bureau, were immediately sent to Haridwar. ETV managed to broadcast the incident live with the help of ETV Uttarakhand’s Haridwar bureau.

The biggest challenge at the time was identifying all the bodies. Sasmita, a 15-year-old girl was the only one who survived the crash. It was not possible to gather any information from her as she was not in her sense. When a schoolgirl who goes on a pilgrimage with her family finds her in a hospital bed and realizes that her parents and siblings are no longer with her in this world, one can easily guess what would be her mental state.

Yes, the story of Sasmita, the only one who survived the Chamoli Alkananda bus mishap was heart-wrenching for the relatives and the whole state. She was swept away by a tidal wave in the Alaknanda River and stuck in a bush. She got a new life by the grace of God. But all of her companions in the pilgrimage left her alone forever.

Relatives of the deceased pilgrims are watching ETV Odia

This kind of tragic incident was a rare in the history of Odisha. It posed a challenge to the state government. The biggest question was how to find the missing corpses in dangerous places like the Himalayas and Alaknanda, about two and a half thousand kilometres from home, and if so, how the family could reach them and how the last rites can be performed. But the state government had taken on the role of a true friend and patron in this regard.

A special flight was arranged from Bhubaneswar to Delhi that took one family member of each of the deceased. They were accompanied by two state ministers, Manmohan Samal and Padmanabha Behera, the MLA of Kodala Niranjan Pradhan and Ganjam District Magistrate V. Karthikeyan Pandian. Suresh Prasad Padhi, the Resident Commissioner and Kripanidhi Biswal, the manager at the Odisha Bhavan, New Delhi made arrangements for the relatives of the deceased to go to Haridwar.

Most of the bodies were recovered on October 12. It was unbelievable to find everything of this crisis being managed so fast and smooth. All communications from Odisha to Uttarakhand were completely strengthened by ETV.

last photograph of the pilgrims. They all died in the accident.

Each and every updates associated with the incident were brought to the attention of the audience, mainly the families and relatives of the deceased pilgrims by ETV. Doing the formalities of post-mortem of so many bodies was difficult task. However, with the direct cooperation of the Uttarakhand government, the work was progressing rapidly. Arrangements were made for a mass cremation at the Kharkhari Ghat on the banks of the Ganges in Haridwaron October 13.

The whole atmosphere was soaked with the cry and heart break of the family members and relatives of the deceased. Sasmita, the only surviving daughter, was admitted to Srinagar Hospital in Uttarakhand by the local administration. Ardhendu Shekhar, an ETV Delhi bureau reporter also went to the hospital and met her. It was not at all easy to keep the emotions at bay and report from the ground zero seeing so many bodies on the banks of the Ganges, the sight of the cries of their family members, the chanting of last rites at the crematorium. But Ardhendu displayed the highest form of professionalism and reported all the heart-rending incidents keeping him calm and composed.

Ardhendu Shekhar reporting from Haridwar Kharkhari Ghat the mass cremation ground (13th October 2007)

ETV did the live broadcast of the mass funeral from Haridwar. In Polsara, Ganjam district, there was an ETV in front of Dr. Sagar Ranjan Tripathi’s house. He was one of the relatives of the deceased who lost his mother Haramani Tripathi and four other relatives in the tragic accident. Hundreds of men and women gathered to watch the live coverage.

People connected withe the deceased pilgrims are watching ETV Odia

According to Dr. Sagar Ranjan, the whole incident was a symbol of a wonderful coordination and crisis management. Before putting her mother’s body on the pyre, he was inconsolably crying and raised his mother’s hand to wave to his father, who was sitting in Polsara, crying. His father, poet Krishnachandra Tripathi, publicly praised ETV and said, “Oh Dear ETV authorities, it would not have been possible for me to pay my last respects to my late wife without you. I thank you from the core of my heart.” It all exemplifies how ETV had touched the lives of the viewers at the grassroots level.

Dr. Sagar Ranjan Tripathy paying tribute to his departed mother Ms. Haramani Tripathy before performing the last rites. (13th October 2007) at Haridwar Kharkhari Ghat on the banks of River Ganges

On October 13, a special bulletin was presented in the national bulletin titled “Tirthayatrahela Mahayatra”- the pilgrimage became the last journey. It was only because of ETV that family members were able to make the last visit of their deceased relatives. “ETV is not just a channel, it is a company of people who stood with us as a friend in the thick and thin of our lives to share our joys and sorrows,” they said. So we thank him from the bottom of our hearts. Upon hearing this, the eyes of the journalists working on the ETV desk filled with tears.

The last photograph of the pilgrims. They all died in the accident.

The three days of tireless work seemed fruitful. Dr. Sagar Ranjan used to say, “I was supposed to accompany my mother so that she can pay homage to our ancestors. But unfortunately she is no more with us. Today I have to pay tribute to her.” Since then, a memorial service has been held every year by Sagaron October 11 to mark the occasion. Forty-two lamps are lit every year to pay tribute to the 42 departed souls.

The so called national channels and self-proclaimed media barons of Lutyens’ Delhi didn’t find it important to pay heed to such a tragic incident that needed so much of inter-state relations and coordination. However The Hindu, on the other hand, covered the news in the same day’s edition and praised ETV’s move.

All in all, ETV was a not just a channel, an emotion, a relation and a timeless friend to people. It was an all-weather friend for the public. A true friend is who one who stands with you in all the ups and downs, stays with you in the cheer and chagrin of life. ETV Odia has repeatedly proved this saying. It was the first and most commendable coverage in the history of television in Odisha.

(Dr. Fakira Mohan Nahak is a writer and former media professional. He is currently working as the Head of the Department of University Institute of Media Studies, Chandigarh University at Mohali, Punjab. Views are Personal)

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