A preventable rail tragedy

More than anything, Amritsar train tragedy was the result of the failure of state government machinery,M.Y. Siddiqui writes

Ram Leela celebrations during the ten-day long Dussehra festivals that culminated in demon Ravan burning ritual at Dhobi Ghat, Chaura Phatak near Amritsar (Punjab) on October 19, 2018 evening where speeding Jallandhar-Amritsar DMU (Diesel Multiple Unit) train crushed to death 62 people and injured over 70 persons was an avoidable tragedy that could not have happened. The train driver although was blowing whistle which the surging crowd of people along and on the tracks could not hear because of high decibel noises, excitement and rejoicings over the deafening sounds of bursting crackers out of the ritual of Ravan burning. Train driver did not take preventive action faced as he was with difficult situation not of his making. Braking a speeding train over a short distance is difficult and dangerous as in such case the train can jump off the rail and endanger lives of passengers, whereas foremost and primary duty of train driver in such situation is to ensure safety of passengers
inside the train. This is the cold truth.

Prima facie it is a case of failure of state government machinery to control a crowd with basic safety norms. As stated, Ram Leela was held at the same venue in last several years, which could not accommodate more than 2,000 people. Local police had allowed up to 5,000 people to congregate there. Several lapses in organisation of events like lack of official inspection of the venue of events, provisions of adequate security and disaster management were seen. Added to this, state government machinery failed to recognise the contour of problems, such as, spilling of people on tracks, a purely man made disaster, controlling crowd density, its monitoring, availability of adequate medical and security resources on site that could have played preventive and mitigatory role. In this connection, a magisterial inquiry by the Punjab Government within a month of the uncalled for accidents will reveal the truth. It is learnt officially that guilty officials pinned down by the magisterial inquiry will be punished after due process of law.

Well, in the scheme of the Constitution of India and the rule of law based system of democratic governance, land is State Subject and trains run on the tracks duly purchased by the Railways from the state governments, for which the Railways have been paying annual rentals (lagaan) to the states and union territories. So the railway tracks are its own dedicated property. Others using railway tracks without self-precautionary safety are obviously trespassers or encroachers. If trespassers are run over by trains, the Railways are not responsible. In this connection, the burden of safety is on the trespassers. No wonder, the Railways have lodged FIR for trespassing its territory. That is why Railways do not pay compensation in similar accidents to the next of the kin of victims.

As for accidents on the railways, there are various types of train accidents caused by human failure, track failure, mechanical failure, collision, untoward incidents like sabotage, bomb blasts etc., which are mentioned in the Railways Act, the Railways Safety Act and various rules and regulations. Accidents like the Amritsar caused by trespassers or at rail crossings caused by road users or by vehicular traffic are regulated by the Motor Vehicles Act, where Railways are not responsible for such accidents. The self-regulatory by trespassers of rail tracks presumed to know self-protective, preventive and precautionary action before crossing or using railway tracks.

However, in our system of governance where people are the sovereign masters, the governments, both Central and States, are responsive and accountable to the people prompting it to pay compensation generously to the victims’ families and those injured. Compensation of 5 lakh to the bereaved families for each of the precious life lost by the State Government of Punjab and 2 lakh for each such victims by the Prime Minister (Union Government) is too meager and a pittance, making our democracy and its responsiveness to the people a sham and therefore condemnable. Such accidents should not be politicised. Nor should blame game be engaged in by different machineries of the Centre and State Governments, much less political parties!