Could Amritsar Train Tragedy Have Been Avoided?
Over 59 Dussehra revellers in Punjab were tragically mowed to death as the Jalandhar-Amritsar DMU tore through the crowd thronging the rail tracks adjacent to where Ravana effigy was burnt. The Amritsar train tragedy highlights severe negligence in Indian civic life as it could have been prevented by various means. While the Punjab government has ordered a probe into the matter, available pieces of evidence show that the blame can’t be really pinned on railways.
There was shocking casualness relating to the statutory permissions for the revelry and fireworks, the public administration appeared more interested in prioritizing VIPs, and the public itself appeared sadly ignorant about the basic terms of safety. Amritsar Municipal Corporation has clearly stated that it hadn’t granted permission to hold Dussehra celebrations at the location. Yet the event witnessed the presence of Congress heavyweights such as Navjot Singh Sidhu’s wife Navjot Kaur and police protection for them. Besides, Kaur has been accused of leaving the site without bothering to help the accident victims.
Horrifyingly, ahead of the accident, organizers of the event went to the extent of lauding the audience for crowding the rail tracks. The entire chain of incidents points to utter insensitivity and a void of administration and political leadership in the state of Punjab.
Certainly, if only the train could have been stopped or slowed down, the accident could have been avoided as well. Indian Railways may not be directly responsible for this accident but it does need to work a lot more on safety because derailing or other mishaps aren’t new to India. It’s over six years since a committee under the chairmanship of Anil Kakodkar looked into safety-related aspects at Railways. A sign of progress since then is that lip service to safety has been replaced by a concrete effort to create a stand-alone corpus to fund safety projects. The Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh was introduced in 2017-18 for safety works.
Two other aspects related to safety need urgent attention. The Kakodkar committee’s recommendation of a statutory rail safety regulator needs to be acted upon. Narrow interests or lethargy must not delay the creation of a safety regulator. Also, India has 1.21 lakh km of railway tracks. Even though the effort to replace unmanned level crossings has been given priority, there are repeated incursions onto rail tracks elsewhere, most often in densely populated urban and suburban locations. There needs to be a plan to deal with contingencies here. Friday’s tragedy highlights the costs of continued neglect.