Lessons that must be learnt
Avoidable accidents have frequently highlighted the lacunas in safety measures and a general disregard for the value of human life
On October 19, as hundreds of people gathered near Jora Phatak in Amritsar to watch the effigy of Ravana go up in flames, it was Dalbir Singh, the Ravana in the on-stage drama of Ramleela, who ran towards the railway tracks and pushed at least 8 people off the tracks. Within a matter of seconds, an approaching DMU train running at 90Km/Hr mowed him down along with 61 other people. Pandemonium ensued as the train hit hundreds of people who stood on railway tracks - men, women and children were flung into the air, body parts lay strewn around. The acrid smell of the burning effigy was replaced by the smell of blood and the screams of terrified people overcame the noise of bursting firecrackers. Dalbir Singh died trying to save lives. He was a Ravana who turned into Lord Ram and won hearts.
As relief and rescue operations started, so did the blame game. The city administration immediately shrugged responsibility and shifted the blame to the organisers and stated that no permissions had been granted for organising an event so close to the railway tracks. The organisers and families of the victims blamed the Railways for failing to spot the massive crowd on the tracks. The organisers claim that they had taken necessary approvals and had repeatedly requested the crowd to stay clear off the tracks. As is the case in most of such incidents, the Police filed an FIR against "unknown persons"; it seems that no one is responsible for the tragic deaths of these Dusshera revellers. According to Punjab Minister and motormouth Navjot Singh Siddhu, whose wife was the chief guest at the tragic event, the incident was "kudrat ka prakop" - an act of nature - except that it wasn't. The incident and its aftermath is a gruesome reminder that owing to the callous and careless attitude of authorities as well as people, entirely avoidable incidents turn into tragedies involving mass casualties.
"Who is responsible" is the burning question that has been driving discussions over this incident and while it is important to fix responsibility, we must understand that fixing responsibility alone will not solve the core problem which is at the heart of such tragedies.
Prima facie, given the facts available in the public domain, the Railways and the loco-pilot (train driver) are not at fault. The Indian Railways was never informed about the celebrations that were taking place and moreover, the section on which the accident occurred is a midsection. It would also be incorrect to assume that the loco-pilot "should" have been able to see the crowd on the tracks. It was already very dark and according to the account of the loco-pilot as well as the Indian Railways, the presence of a curve and thick smoke from the burning effigy reduced visibility. When the loco-pilot did spot the massive gathering, he blasted the horn and did indeed apply brakes. Unfortunately, the train could not be brought to an immediate halt. Instead of blaming the driver, we should appreciate that he was perhaps the most helpless person on that fateful night. Even if he had applied sudden brakes, given the speed at which he was travelling, the train would have not been able to stop in time and his actions may also have led to a derailment. The number of casualties would have been much, much higher. Trains have a Right of Way (RoW) on the railway tracks and in this instance, the presence of so many people on railway tracks with no prior notice in the dead of the night amounts to trespassing.
A major chunk of the blame lies on the organisers of this event. It appears that the organisers did not take requisite permissions from the authorities. They went underground after the tragedy instead of assisting in rescue efforts. Shockingly, a video has surfaced which shows one of the organisers proudly telling the chief guest about the presence of the people on the railway tracks over the microphone. The organisers should have asked their volunteers to remove the crowds from the tracks. If that did not work, they should have informed the police who should have then communicated the same to the Indian Railways. This would have ensured that the Railways communicated to their loco-pilots to stay alert on that particular section. The organisers should be booked under the relevant sections of the law and exemplary punishment must be awarded. This would send a strong signal to all future organisers of such events how they must take safety very seriously and if found guilty, they would not be spared.
District administration/Municipal authorities
The local authorities have very conveniently passed on the responsibility to the organisers. They claim that the organisers never took permission for the event. But does this absolve the district authority of its responsibility?
The problem with the authorities in India is their lack of initiative and pro-activeness. The authorities are caught in an endless bureaucratic web of files, signatures, office orders and permissions to be able to actively monitor, gauge and react to the situation on the ground. It is impossible that they were unaware of the Dusshera celebrations in Amritsar which involved the presence of high-profile chief guests. They just chose to ignore it - after all, if they never gave permission, they would have to take no blame if anything went wrong. This is exactly what needs to change - the authorities must take steps to ensure that events that take place without their permission are immediately stopped and necessary proceedings are initiated against the organisers. The District Administration must be held accountable for happenings in their District.
Awareness and attitude
The utter lack of awareness regarding safety as well as the sheer disregard for the value of a human life needs to be addressed. It is important to understand that it is not just the authorities that do not take human lives seriously but also the people themselves. A simple search on "railway level crossing in India" on YouTube will throw hundreds of videos which show people crossing tracks even after the barriers have fallen and in the case of crossings without barriers, helpless gatemen try to frantically stop people from crossing over. In the Amritsar tragedy, people would have known that they were standing on the railway track but they perhaps felt that a train would slow down or continuously honk- they were wrong. Trains have the sole right of way over the railway tracks and even if emergency brakes are applied, there is a very high probability that the train will not be able to stop in time in addition to a derailment risk. This knowledge should be disseminated through the educational curriculum in schools and by identifying local stakeholders such as Panchayats in high-risk rural areas where such accidents are most likely to take place.
India witnesses such tragedies time and again due to an absolute lack of accountability. Thousands of people die in entirely avoidable accidents that result from the callousness of government authorities and agencies. There have been so many deaths in road accidents that have resulted from the presence of potholes - these deaths are recorded as regular road accidents and no one is held accountable. The current practice followed in the aftermath of an incident is the order of an enquiry, announcement of a compensation and politicians flocking to meet the relatives of the deceased.
If a person were to die due to an accident caused by, say, a pothole on the road, the Junior Engineers must immediately be suspended and a criminal case filed against them followed by their arrest. In the case of the present tragedy, the municipal corporation easily absolved themselves of responsibility by stating that the requisite permission had not been taken for them. Fixing accountability will ensure that senior officers take a personal interest in the work that they supervise. A Junior Engineer, therefore, will ensure that the road is built well by the contractor while a Municipal Commissioner will think thrice before giving permission to an event which may be risky.
Independence and impartiality
Numerous incidents, including the present tragedy, highlight the need for independent and impartial institutions. It is a well-known fact that very often people close to a ruling party in a state or at the national level enjoy a level of impunity. We should remember that CBI was called a "caged parrot" by the Supreme Court of India. In the case of the Amritsar tragedy, it is highly unlikely that the Magisterial probe will come down heavily on the event organisers as the wife of a Minister and the local MLA of the ruling party was the Chief Guest. A magistrate or police officer who will prepare an unbiased and critical report is likely to be reprimanded. It is therefore essential that institutions such as the State Police and CBI maintain integrity, impartiality and independence. The only way in which this can be achieved is by changing the law and this is possible only with the cooperation of lawmakers - one should, therefore, expect maximum resistance to a legislation to such effect. However, over time and with sustained pressure from the civil society such a change may indeed be possible - the Right to Information Act is one such example.
Rail safety and the RRSK
Although this tragedy was not a direct result of a safety lapse on the part of Indian Railways, thousands of people lose their lives every year in railway related accidents in India. The safety and safety spending record of the Indian Railways has been extremely poor and past promises made to improve rail safety have remained mere lip service. A positive development has been the creation of the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) which is a dedicated corpus of 1 Lakh Crore Rupees over 5 years (20,000 Crore per year) directed at Railway safety. These funds should be used for improving safety through a technical upgrade and elimination of unmanned level crossings. Installation of motion sensors and CCTV cameras to monitor sections prone to trespassing, utilising motion triggered panic hooters to alert trespassers of oncoming trains, installing train collision avoidance systems and increasing the number of linemen along the tracks are some interventions that may be considered by the Indian Railways.
It seems that lessons from the past have not been learnt and tragedies that can be avoided have become a recurring phenomenon in a country where human life is given little value. Authorities need to become proactive and accountable and people need to be more aware and well informed. The routine of enquiries and probes after tragedies produce files that are never read, findings which are never implemented, and accountability is never fixed. Unless there is an overhaul in the safety measures, lives will continue to be lost, casualties will remain a mere figure, a paltry compensation will be announced, enquiry commissions will be set up and their findings will gather dust in a file cabinet- and life will go on, as usual, until another accident.
(The author is a Young Professional (Infrastructure Connectivity) at NITI Aayog. The views expressed are strictly personal)