Behind the Indian triple train tragedy: reflections of an aid worker

Blog by Oxfam in Asia
Published: 18th August 2023

On World Humanitarian Day 2023, Amalin Patnaik, Programme Coordinator at Oxfam in India, shares the lesser-known facets of humanitarian work and his journey of helping victims and families after the tragic train collision in Balasore, Odisha.

Choosing a career in the humanitarian sector has not only given me a profound sense of purpose and satisfaction, but it has also enabled me to play a part in a greater mission beyond my own self. The challenges and ever-changing nature of this work have opened doors for my personal development, honing my skills, and embracing a journey of constant learning.

Throughout my career, I've had the privilege of being involved in an array of humanitarian assistance initiatives in India. From extending a helping hand to the Bihar government during the harrowing Koshi floods to taking the lead in UNHabitat's tireless efforts following the devastating floods in Kerala. I've had the honor of playing a part in Disaster Response, Recovery, and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) efforts across various parts of the country.

In June 2023, the triple train tragedy in Odisha that killed over 290 people tested my limits as a humanitarian worker in ways I never could have imagined. Witnessing the aftermath of a disaster that took hundreds of lives was profoundly moving. It was impossible not to feel a whirlwind of emotions – grief, sadness, empathy, and a sense of helplessness. The weight of the situation was immense, and it made our work even more significant.

One of the first hurdles I faced was securing government permission for setting up a Help Desk. It might sound like a straightforward task, but negotiating with local police, district authorities, and the District Emergency Officer proved to be an intricate dance of diplomacy and persistence. Hours of discussions, numerous phone calls, and countless meetings were necessary to gain the green light. The goal was clear: streamline aid efforts and prevent the duplication of resources among different agencies. It was a testament to Oxfam India's commitment to effective relief work and eliminating redundancy.

A critical aspect of our response was the deployment of trained counselors for psycho-social support. Amidst the chaos, it was essential to provide emotional aid to the grievously injured, their attendants, and families desperately searching for their loved ones. These counselors became pillars of strength, offering comfort and a listening ear to those who had lost so much.

One silver lining in this otherwise grim situation was the camaraderie that developed among fellow responders from various organizations. In times of crisis, a sense of unity emerged, and a supportive network formed. We all knew that we were in this together, and that solidarity was a driving force behind our efforts.

In a world where even a small act of kindness is instantly shared on social media for views and likes, being a humanitarian aid worker goes far beyond fleeting gestures. It involves deeply respecting those in need, seeking their consent, and holding oneself and others accountable. When we engage with communities, our approach ensures that no one is photographed or approached without their consent, preserving their dignity as a priority. Our commitment spans years of collaboration with people and local leaders, fostering trust and understanding.

Cultural sensitivity and adaptability stand as indispensable qualities for aid workers. This involves not only comprehending local customs but also mastering the language. While others might overlook disaster-stricken communities, we invest time in building the capacities of individuals in climate-vulnerable or conflict-affected regions. We tirelessly strive to capture the attention of the international system, aiming for sustainable solutions.

Yet, our responsibilities stretch beyond the frontline. Considerable time is invested in administrative tasks, logistics, and paperwork. This entails seamless collaboration with local authorities, astute budget management, meticulous transport coordination, and compliance with regulations. Our work embodies a holistic commitment, far removed from mere media snapshots of goodwill.

I choose not to place myself at the center of the narrative, for the true focus should always remain on the individuals compelled to dwell in camps and rely on aid for their next meal. Unfortunately, the reality we face demands that more individuals join the ranks of the aid sector, especially considering the escalating climate crisis.

As I reflect on these thoughts, the strength of the human spirit becomes even more evident to me. The tragic events of the Odisha triple train collision serve as a reminder of life's fragility and the importance of collective action.


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