Last Friday evening, a train tore through a Dussehra celebration, which was in progress next to a rail track, at Amritsar’s Dhobi Ghat, killing at least 61 people and injuring many others. The celebration has been taking place at the same location for four decades; it’s sheer luck that such a mishap did not happen earlier. The driver in his statement said he applied the “emergency brakes” as he saw the crowd on the tracks but “still some people were caught in the path of the train”.
Several arms of the state are responsible for this disaster. First, the Indian Railways. The rail tracks are its property. As an official told the newspaper Mint, if anyone steps on to the tracks, it amounts to trespassing. “It’s on humanitarian grounds that Indian Railways don’t penalise them [those who come on tracks]”, the officer said. By not penalising them, as the Amritsar accident showed, the Railways has not been doing anyone any favour. In fact, it has only encouraged such unacceptable behaviour. Second, the local police. Why on earth did they give permission to hold a function so close to the tracks when they don’t have enough manpower and adequate training to ensure people don’t get in the way of moving trains? Third, the local administration. It seems the organisers of the event did not bother to seek written permission from either the district administration or the municipal corporation. Effectively, there was no prior arrangement to deal with any untoward incident. If the event has been taking place at the same venue, then the local authorities must have known about it. Why were safety measures not in place? This catastrophe will be forgotten before long. People will move on. Many of those killed were poor, migrant workers. It is shocking how cheap lives in India can be.
There are several learnings from this tragedy. Organisers of such events must seek permission. Events should only be held in grounds that are safe for attendees. The police must ensure proper crowd control and management at large events.
The organisers of the programme and the attendees must also shoulder part of the blame. In a country where basic safety protocols are not in place and adequate arrangements are usually never made on time, it is important that one uses his/her better judgment to stay safe.
This lack of sense of personal safety does not, however, absolve the State of its responsibility of ensuring the safety of all citizens.