There would be something uncommonly tragic about the 61 people killed in Amritsar as they watched the annual burning of Ravana, the celebration of the victory of good over evil, had the manner of their dying not been so commonplace. They died because they were either standing on or alongside a mainline railway track used by express trains.
Thousands of people are killed every year in the same manner. In the three years to 2017, close to 50,000 Indians died after being knocked down or run-over by trains. The figure for 2017 alone is 17,500. In response to a parliamentary question in July, the minister of state for railways stated: “Deaths on railway tracks occur due to trespassing, violating safety and cautionary instructions, avoiding over bridges, using mobile phones and other electronic gadgets while crossing railway tracks etc.”
Although the list does not include gathering to watch a religious or cultural event, this also has a precedent. Twenty six people were run over by a train in Thalassery in Kerala in 1986 as they sat on the tracks watching fireworks at the conclusion of a temple festival.
Crossing railway tracks, except at designated crossings, gathering on railway tracks, walking on tracks, being on a railway track in any manner except inside a train carriage with a ticket constitute trespassing on railway property and is punishable with a fine or imprisonment – and carries the risk of being killed.
It was a risk that spectators in Amristar took on Friday as they watched the Ravana dahan from the higher ground of the railway track.
Yet, as reports of the deaths started to come in, there was a clamour to pin the blame on someone else. The government, which had allowed the event to be held near a railway line. Indian Railways, which had not slowed the train. Congress leader Navjot Kaur Siddhu, the chief guest, because she came late, hence causing the burning of the effigies and the arrival of the trains to coincide. With characteristic crassness, politicians tried to score party political points over the heaped corpses, with the Opposition political parties in the state blaming the party of government.
One injured survivor told a reporter that she was on a Whatsapp video call live relaying the event to her husband. “The train driver should have noticed the crowd as there was light and people were holding their mobile phones up to record the event,” she said. Journalists were among those amplifying the blame game or contributing to it themselves. A hyperventilating journalist claimed to have conducted an “investigation” and found that a “top light of the train” was not working, leading to the accident.
Indian Railways has an abysmal safety record, but there is no question that that the blame for this horrific accident lies elsewhere. It is often argued that the Railways does not enforce its own rules regarding trespassing. However, it is impossible to police every segment of the vast railway network. In 2017. the Railways prosecuted 17,3112 people for trespassing, ten times the number who died on the tracks.
Putting themselves as risk
The problem is that we have a national culture of indifference to matters of safety and to institutional rules of any sort related to safety. In many other places, standing on a railway track for a better view might be regarded as an act of colossal naivety. But in India it is just something people do, and they take their children along, the better to teach them how to break rules and put their lives at risk.
This reckless disregard for personal safety and rules, or the consequences of this is so normalised that the Ramlila organisers, as an act of consideration, had installed a large LED screen facing the viewers standing along the railway line. The Punjab government’s compensation award of Rs 500,000 to the families of each of the dead, most of them working class, is also in a sense compensation for their right to be protected despite violating the law. But there is no compensation for lives cut short and Rs 500,000 cannot piece together families torn apart by death.
As we hear the stories, of young lives gone and families left bereft by the 61 deaths in Amritsar, it is worth remembering that every day, somewhere across the vast railway network, people are run over by trains because they disregarded the rules. It’s also worth asking how in our everyday lives, we contribute to the lawless chaos and laugh it off saying, “We are like that only.”
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