Punjab Tragedy: Lessons that were never learned

Dussehra 2018 witnessed deaths of more than 60 people when a train ran into a crowd celebrating the festival. And after a year have we learned anything from the incident.

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There are few tragedies more heart-rending than any major disaster. Multiple factors conspired to make 19th October 2018, a dangerous day for Indians. I as a citizen of this country express my deep solidarity with the families of the 60 men, women, and children who died in one of India’s worst disasters. After a year, people might have forgotten the tragedy that happened on Dussehra last year in Amritsar, but the families that lost their sons, fathers, daughter, husbands, and wives will never forget that day. It was the time of the festival, there were lightings, children were excited for ‘Raavan Dahan’ and mothers were preparing for ‘Pooja’, it was happiness all around. And then after a few hours, those families were incomplete. And still, they are incomplete. For them this festival is no longer a festival, for them, it is the time to mourn.

Who should be blamed for this, Railways, District Administration or the people who died? No one knows that. Neither anyone can be blamed for such events. Considering the whole scenario, no immediate action could have protected those people. As the venue was crowded well beyond basic safety norms. Still, the local police allowed almost 5,000 people to congregate there. In India, festivals are run by emotions and not by logic and rules. Blaming someone for this tragedy is not right.

There were several other loopholes in the organization of the event, although, where the responsibility lies is not yet completely clear. From permission for the event and inspection of the venue to security and disaster management provisions. Nothing was in proper order.

But this is not the only thing, there have been plenty of tragedies at public gatherings. In 2013, a train in Bihar killed more than 20 people and injured many when it ran into pilgrims crossing the tracks. In the same year, in Ratnagiri in Madhya Pradesh during the Navratri celebration, 115 people died in a stampede. In 2014, another Dussehra tragedy took place that saw killings of 32 people in a stampede in Patna. The list goes on—from Maharashtra, where approx. 350 people died in a stampede at a religious fair at Mander Devi temple in 2005, to Kerala where 106 pilgrims died in a stampede at Sabarimala in 2011.

A study published by the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction in 2013 says that 79% of stampedes in India occur at religious gatherings and pilgrimages.

Recognizing the contours of the problem is the first step to addressing it. And the second step is to implement those policies. Unfortunately, the second step has never been taken in India. Incidents like stampedes or people falling into dangerous terrain or train tracks due to crowd are not “acts of God”.

There are several preventive measures that can at least reduce the rate of damage. Crowd density should have been monitored and controlled. Adequate medical, communication and security resources should be there on-site during such celebrations. These strategies can play both preventive and mitigatory roles. There is research that shows that crowd behavior in a given situation can be dangerously different, and less rational, than individual behaviour. Adequate human and physical infrastructure can control such behaviour. Such lacking, on the other hand, can heighten the crowd’s sense of danger and can create adverse reactions.

Not only this, the high-level railway committee headed by Dr. Anil Kakoodhkar mentioned that there should be an Advanced Signaling System in trains and all Level Crossings (both manned and unmanned) should be eliminated as soon as possible. The committee gave its recommendation in 2017. But still, the incident took place.

Unfortunately, these all are exceptions rather than the rules. Because we are the ones who make exceptions and rules. In 2014, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) released crowd management guidelines. These guidelines were never considered during any such event. And if at all these guidelines are circulated at state and district level, they might not be implemented. The Amritsar Dussehra tragedy is a perfect example of a lack of government and people’s will. This is what happens when the government lacks in implementing policies.

This Dussehra, in respect of those who left us, should take a pledge of understanding the importance of the lives of each and every individual among us. Humans will die, but Humanity should never die. Dussehra is a festival of eliminating the negatives around us.