The mishap on the railway tracks in Amritsar is another stark reminder of how cheap life is in India
Videos circulating on social media of a train mowing down over 60 people near Amritsar in Punjab while they were celebrating Dussehra is tragic but unfortunately not shocking any more given how cheaply human life is valued in India. Apparently revellers had gathered to view an elaborate Raavan Dahan event in an open area close to the railway tracks at Joda Phatak and hundreds of them trespassed on to the railway tracks nearby, unaware and/or unconcerned that a speeding train was approaching which ended up mowing down scores. The railway driver, who was given the go-ahead on the assumption that there was no technical error or breakdown on that line, had no idea that the tracks had turned into a spectator gallery of sorts. Played in a loop on social media, these videos at a slower speed show the horror and the panic of this tragedy. Like with any human tragedy, politicians have engaged themselves in a blame-game of sorts, considering the Congress rules Punjab and the Railways belongs to the Centre. However, it is unfair to blame the Railways for the accident, which was largely man-made. It exposes the challenges of man management around a religious event that attracts a sea of wonder-eyed spectators. Be it Kumbh or Jallikattu, instances of poor crowd management are many, some of them often leading to brutal stampedes. It points to the lacuna in security drills at public events, the scale of which can have a cascading catastrophic effect should all hell break loose. In this case, the district administration and organisers of the function were lax about clearing a venue site that is dangerously close to regular railway tracks. One needs to investigate if proper clearances had been taken or even applied for. Were Railway officials informed about the proposed event so close to a corridor of fast-moving trains? Either permission from local administration was taken and the organisers failed to make appropriate safety arrangements or permission was not sought at all. In any of the two cases, trouble awaits the local administration. The fact that a swollen crowd was allowed to drift into a heavily frequented rail track is downright insane. And if squatting on tracks for multiple reasons is the done thing, then local police administration must coordinate with the RPF to prevent it rather than just abdicate responsibility.
A European health and safety officer would have an aneurysm within seconds of landing in India. It is not as if safety structures and rules are not in place but because there is a complete lack of wilful enforcement by the authorities, the public tends to ignore and bend rules. And till there is a tragedy, we think we have contained the situation. At the same time, we allow exceptions for the wildest of reasons, for example, allowing Sikh women to not wear helmets because of ‘religious’ reasons, placing sanctity above the value of life. If the public is encouraged to ignore safety, so will companies and event organisers like those in Amritsar. Ideally, the railway tracks should have been cordoned off and the authorities should have informed about the event in advance. But in our ‘anything goes’ line of thought, nobody bothered. India not only has a wealth disparity but also a disparity between the value of life. A labourer from north India is not valued at all, whereas a child from a south Mumbai family is worth much more. Our media coverage reflects this. During the 26/11 attacks, hundreds who died at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus were for a large part ignored because the poor are expendable by hundreds. Besides, enforcement and safety have an associated cost and we as a society choose not to pay it simply because human life is so devalued. Till the latter continues to be negotiable, we cannot enforce laws. And while this passes on to a routine board of inquiry, fact is there is another tragedy waiting to happen with no lessons learnt.