If there is one truism in our “sare jahan se achha” Bharat, it is the near total lack of accountability and responsibility in those we have elected to govern us. Even worse, this is accompanied by a total absence of shame. Despite the usual platitudes from our “netas”, I doubt if there is a pang of conscience or remorse among the lot of them. Their attitude is that these things happen – especially in India where life is cheap and expendable – and that the blame lies everywhere except on themselves. Nothing illustrates this attitude better than the recent human – and entirely preventable – tragedy of the Elphinstone Bridge stampede in Mumbai.
Facts and Figures
First, the mundane, though horrific facts. That the bridge and the adjoining railway station had exceeded its safe capacity was well known to the authorities years ago – caused by the burgeoning and unplanned construction bonanza in the former mill lands surrounding the station. As usual, those in charge – and those in charge above them – took refuge in the all too pervasive red tape that is a convenient tool to put off uncomfortable decisions.
Another common complaint is that the already congested footbridges are infested with hawkers, who take up a lot of the limited space. Although these hawkers are periodically removed by the cops and the municipality, they always return due to pressure from local politicians. Who are these local politicians, obviously small fry, and why do they hold such influence and power over the police? Probably they have a cozy and mutually beneficial financial relationship; and the cops are encouraged to look the other way. No one really knows, but it is a question that needs to be asked.
To be fair, part of the responsibility lies with the laissez-faire attitude of the Indian public towards breath-sapping crowds; and the me-first attitude in most of them. Although it soon became apparent that there was not a centimeter of available space on the bridge or the stairs leading up to it, those at the back persisted in trying to push through to take shelter from the rain under the canopy. The thought that their intemperate action would jeopardize the safety and even the lives of those in front of them probably never entered their minds. The resulting tragedy was almost inevitable.
Let us now analyze the entirely predictable aftermath. The first impulse of those responsible was to pass the buck to someone else. The police arrived late on the scene because hey, it was the responsibility of the railway authorities; and not really in their jurisdiction. This word “jurisdiction” is responsible for innumerable miscarriages of justice and even deaths in the police force. The first impulse is to shirk responsibility and pass it on to someone else. In this case, the idea that swift action was vital on their part to save lives was not a priority for them.
If the attitude of the police and the railway protection force was unconscionable, the callousness of those directly in charge was even more reprehensible. The former railway minister, no less, shrugged his shoulders and said that he had given sanction for a new bridge at the station two years ago. Like Pontius Pilate, he then washed his hands and nonchalantly passed the buck to the state railway authorities. The idea of following up on his instructions was probably below his pay grade. The Western Railway authorities absolved themselves by pointing out that they had referred the matter to the Central Railway, since the station and bridge fell under the latter’s jurisdiction – that dreaded word again!
The current railway minister expressed his outrage and ordered an audit of all footbridges in the suburban system – after the fact of course. It is a cruel irony that the word “prevention” is not in the vocabulary of those responsible for the safety of ordinary citizens. (That rule doesn’t apply to the burgeoning population of VIPs, of course). They are galvanized into action only after the tragedy has occurred – and that too, only for a short while till public anger has abated. Then they revert to their natural state of somnolence. Oh, and by the way, true to form, the minister also blamed the previous government. (And you thought the BJP government would be different, you poor suckers).
Naturally, the Opposition seized on the opportunity to lambast PM Modi and CM Devendra Fadnavis and to ridicule the proposed – and humongously expensive bullet train and Shivaji statue, at a time when the railways claimed a shortage of funds. The statue may be deferred, but the bullet train is coming. Modi wants the train; and what Modi wants, Modi gets, (in the words of the immortal Donald Trump) believe me.
So, there you have it. The next few weeks will witness an explosion of sound and fury which in the end, will achieve very little. And we Indians will shrug our shoulders and wait for the next mishap and the next scandal. What can I say? We are like that only.
According to latest reports, there seems to be a faint light at the end of the tunnel. The new Railway Minister, Piyush Goyal, has apparently cracked the whip on the railway babus, stressed on safety and given them carte blanche to spend whatever is necessary. Whether the enthusiasm remains however, needs to be seen, especially after the Minister returns to Delhi and becomes preoccupied with other matters.
Remember that lethargy and delay are ingrained in our bureaucrats. Their natural inclination is to delay taking decisions; often for extraneous reasons. Expecting decades of conditioning to be overturned in a few months is a tall order. One can only hope.
Firoze Hirjikaka is a retired civil engineer and freelance writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org