State, Railways not prepared for Amritsar disaster

Gyan Pathak

With the passage of Disaster Management Act 2005 and subsequent disaster management policies adopted by our country, we know that managing large assembly of people and preventing any disaster during such times is the responsibility of the state and the concerned departments, which are supposed to be prepared to prevent any disaster. The philosophy of the prevention of disaster does not permit us to have any simplistic view that the people on the railway tracks were ‘trespassers’ and, therefore, ‘railways’ or the state is not guilty in the terrible accident near Amritsar in which over 60 people were mowed down by a train, and as many were injured.

Among the leaders of the ruling establishments both at the Centre and in Punjab, only Union finance minister Arun Jaitley has shown a certain level of wisdom by stating that the ‘tragedy could have been avoided’. Many others, including minister of state for railways, Manoj Sinha, gave irresponsible statements, such as ‘railways not at fault’, ‘the state administration not at fault’, ‘people on tracks were trespassers’, the ‘organisers of the Dussehra celebrations had not taken permission from various wings of the state administration’, etc.

[box type=”shadow” align=”aligncenter” class=”” width=””]Dereliction of duty of the railway staff and officials

Assembly of people on the railway tracks, even if they are ‘trespassers’ should not be mowed down by a train, especially in case of prior knowledge of such an assembly. Our minister of state for railways must know that they had either prior knowledge of the assembly on the tracks or they failed in their duty to know what had been happening on their tracks for hours before the mishap. In both cases, it is dereliction of duty of the railway staff and officials. [/box]

Sinha’s statement was outrageous in that it was issued even before a probe of this shocking and terrible incident was undertaken to examine issues pertaining to the operation of the railways and its administration. For example, the railways were still probing the three main issues: Was any intimation given regarding the event being held so close to the tracks? How was the event allowed to happen so close to the railway tracks? And, was there a technical failure, such as in signalling or error on the part of railways team?

There are many other issues that involve his ministry’s and railways’ operation, which are presently ignored, but need to be addressed, such as the place of occurrence is near Joda phatak (railway crossing) in a busy market place having people assembled in large number, many of them were on the railway tracks. Why the driver of the train was not given the signal to either slow down the train or stop it? What did the driver of the train do to prevent the mishap before he failed in his efforts? And more importantly, what is the preparedness of the railway in preventing disasters as envisaged in the Disaster Management Act 2005 and related policies?

Assembly of people on the railway tracks, even if they are ‘trespassers’ should not be mowed down by a train, especially in case of prior knowledge of such an assembly on the tracks. Our minister of state for railways must know that they had either prior knowledge of the assembly on the tracks or they failed in their duty to know what had been happening on their tracks for hours before the mishap. In both the cases, it is dereliction of duty of the railway staff and officials. ‘Trespassers’ did not come suddenly on the tracks and, therefore, the railway officials and staff had time enough to prevent the disaster. They have also a system of signals (yellow for drive carefully, and red to stop) on strategic points visible to train drivers at least from one kilometre away. Any statement from the minister of state for railways giving a clean chit to itself before completion of probe on all aspects of accident is not acceptable.

Moreover, there is something called public administration, which regulates all lawful or unlawful assembly of people. Merely telling the people that the organisers did not have requisite permissions from the municipal corporation, police, pollution department or the district administration does not prove that the state administration was fully prepared for handling such a large assembly of people for whatever reason. Preventing any disaster during any assembly of people is the administration’s responsibility. The incident clearly involved misadministration on the part of the state as well as unpreparedness in preventing disasters. Such celebrations had been an annual feature at the place of occurrence and, therefore, the state administration must have some mechanism in place for handling it successfully without any disaster. The state, therefore, is also responsible for this mishap.

Organisers of celebrations are also responsible for the safety of the people assembled there, for which they should have worked in close cooperation with the state administration and the railways, which they seem to have avoided in their zest. The people on the tracks were also clearly at fault by ignoring their own safety. It is not that the organisers or the people were unaware of the danger. They were fully aware of the danger but did not take precautions. If we don’t want such disasters to recur, we, the common people, also must cooperate with the authorities responsible for management of the assembly of people.

(The author is a political commentator)

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