Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Lessons from the Amritsar train accident

India’s history of such tragedies at religious events and venues shows up multiple state failures

Earlier this week, Sukhpal Khaira, an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) member of the Punjab state legislature, said that the Amritsar Dussehra incident was a small incident and that such incidents happen every day in India. He is entirely wrong on the first count. On the second, he approaches the truth. This, as much the deaths and the injuries, is the tragedy of Amritsar.

Sixty-two people have died and 90 have been injured by the speeding train that ploughed through the crowd that had spilled onto the railway tracks for a Ram Leela event. Expectedly, the blame game started almost immediately. There is little point in jumping to conclusions. The report of the magisterial committee appointed by Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh will be out soon enough. However, a few points seem clear.

First, the railways have reason to stand their ground. It may turn out that the train driver did not take every preventive action possible. However, he was faced with a difficult situation not of his making. Braking a train over a short distance and time is both difficult and dangerous. This is why the General Railway Police has filed a case of trespassing, alleging that this was an “extraneous event, not a violation of procedure by staff". The stance has been widely criticized, but there is cold truth to it.

Second, the venue was crowded well beyond basic safety norms. The Ram Leela event took place, as it has for several years, on the Dhobi Ghat, which can barely accommodate 2,000 people. Yet, the local police had allowed almost 5,000 people to congregate there.

Third, there were several lapses in the organization of the event, although where the culpability lies is not yet completely clear. From official permission for the event and inspection of the venue to security and disaster management provisions, the inquiry will have plenty to look at.

But there have been past tragedies aplenty at public gatherings, and past inquiries. In 2013, a train in Bihar killed dozens and injured many more when it ran into pilgrims crossing the tracks. The same year, 115 people died in a stampede that broke out on a bridge during Navratri celebrations in Ratangarh village, Madhya Pradesh. In 2014, another Dussehra debacle saw 32 people killed in a stampede at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan where people had come to watch the ‘Ravan Vadh’ ceremony. The list goes on—from Maharashtra, where nearly 350 people were killed at a religious fair at Mandher Devi temple near Wai in 2005, to Kerala where 106 pilgrims died in a stampede at Sabarimala in 2011.

Such incidents typically occur at concerts, stadium events and the like in other countries—venues where a critical density of people is reached, access and exit is restricted and organization is ad hoc. In India, it is religious events and venues that usually fulfil those criteria. Thus, a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction found that 79% of stampedes in India had occurred at religious gatherings and pilgrimages.

Recognizing the contours of the problem is the first step to addressing it. Unfortunately, the second step has rarely been taken in India. Such incidents, whether stampedes or caused by people spilling onto dangerous terrain or train tracks, are not “acts of God". There are preventive strategies aplenty. Crowd density can be monitored and controlled. Adequate medical, communication and security resources on site can play both preventive and mitigatory roles. There is a wealth of research showing that crowd behaviour in a given situation can be dangerously different, and less rational, than individual behaviour. Adequate human and physical infrastructure can corral this behaviour. Their lack, on the other hand, can heighten the crowd’s sense of danger and adverse reaction.

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In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the Jamarat Bridge project, a multi-storeyed construction that can fit millions of pilgrims during the Hajj pilgrimage, has led to better management of pedestrian traffic, with properly discernible entrances and exits, broadened bottlenecks and supervision of crowd densities. In India, the Kerala government has been pushing to give Sabarimala national pilgrim centre status, which would entail a mass gathering and safe pilgrimage policy as well as additional infrastructure, among other things.

Unfortunately, this is the exception more than the rule. In 2014, the National Disaster Management Authority had come up with crowd management guidelines. If these guidelines have been circulated at the state and local levels, they have certainly not been implemented. The Amritsar Dussehra event is a prime example. And when the state lacks the will to implement and enforce such policies, crowds will function in ways that are detrimental to it; people will not obey rules when they lack a reasonable expectation of being punished for not doing so.

The inquiry will perhaps apportion blame for the tragedy. But post facto actions will not prevent future tragedies.

What could have been done to prevent the Amritsar train accident? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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