Amritsar train accident: A tragedy that was waiting to happen
Organizers celebrated Dussehra at Dhobi Ghat based on verbal permission from railway crossing guards in Amritsar
New Delhi: Dussehra celebrations at Amritsar’s Dhobi Ghat have been a four-decade-old affair. Hundreds throng the place to see the fireworks as the effigy of Ravana is set on fire, celebrating the victory of good over evil. There was no complaint from the Indian Railways or locals over the choice of venue until Friday when train accident took place, killing 61 people.
But organizing the event at the small triangular ground with just two gates—one opening on the main road and the other facing the railway tracks, besides the open dias at one corner that doubled up as a platform for the Dussehra celebrations—was always a risky proposition. Organizers never cared to seek a written permission from either the district administration or the municipal corporation. Effectively, there was no prior arrangement to deal with any untoward incident. This time, too, it was no different. The public and the administration knew about the celebrations, but no one cared to find out if adequate safety measures were taken.
“Dussehra organizers generally tell the guards at the crossing to take care of the trains by closing the gates after 5-10 minutes—enough time for organizers to ask the public to clear the tracks before the train passes. This time, it didn’t happen,” said Reshmi Kaur, a local resident who lives metres away from the track.
“When Ravana’s effigy was set on fire, the crowd spilled over to the tracks. Everybody was so engrossed in celebrations, music and in taking selfies that nobody cared about the train,” Kaur claimed that many local residents were aware that the train was about to pass.
“When we used to organize, we would ensure barricading either through human chain or deploying of police. But this year, celebration was at a larger scale and so was the crowd,” said a local politician, who used to organize the Dussehra programme on the same grounds, requesting anonymity.
He acknowledged that guards were asked to be on alert and organizers in the past used to make regular announcements to clear the tracks. “That is one reason why this kind of a tragedy has never happened before.”
The Railways denied that the guards at the level crossing were under pressure from local politicians or the Dussehra committee organizers.
“This is pure speculation and as you may appreciate the Railways cannot respond to speculations. I would appreciate if news organizations focus on credible, objectively verifiable facts in the light of this tragedy,” said an Indian Railways spokesperson.
On the question why railway guards didn’t stop the train, Amritsar station master Amrit Singh said the guard’s jurisdiction is limited to the level crossing. If something is happening on tracks it’s purely his discretion if he wants to report it or not. Railways can’t hold them responsible.
Another senior railway official, requesting anonymity, said Indian Railways has 63,000km of railway track and there is no surveillance system on tracks. If a track is laid, it is railways’ property and not public property. If you come on tracks, it amounts to trespassing. Under the Railways’ rules, people who have been injured were trespassers and can be fined and punished. “It’s on humanitarian ground that Indian Railways don’t penalize them.”
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