By Prarthana Mitra
Over 60 people perished in a brutal death in Amritsar during Dussehra celebrations, as a train ran over them in Joda Phatak. Described as a freak accident by some, others claim that the tragedy which unfolded in Amritsar’s Dhobi Ghat on October 19 was completely avoidable, with appropriate measures to extenuate the dangers of celebrating on an active train track.
For four decades, hundreds of revellers from the nearby township assemble at the same spot every year, to relive the victory of Lord Ram over Ravan with fireworks and roadshows. The celebrations have taken place, thus far, on the basis of verbal permission from railway crossing guards, with no complaints from the Indian Railways over the choice of venue. Practical concerns like security arrangement and a contingency to clear the space in case of a speeding train have reportedly never crossed anyone’s minds before Friday’s accident. It was a tragedy waiting to happen.
Locals who have thronged Dhobi Ghat for decades told the media that Dussehra organizers generally tell the guards at the crossing to close the gates every 5-10 minutes which gives the organisers and public enough time to clear the tracks and let the train pass. This time, it didn’t happen, some residents reported before adding that people were so engrossed with burning the effigy and taking selfies that they did not even notice the oncoming train. The incident put around 300 people in harm’s way this year.
A local politician who spoke to Mint on condition of anonymity said that in the past, guards used to be on alert and periodic announcements asked people to clear the tracks.“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,” he added. Even as political parties are trying to shift the onus of this fatality on each other, one cannot miss the negligence and lack of accountability, when it comes to the concerned authorities.
On being asked why railway guards didn’t stop the train, Amritsar station master Amrit Singh said the guard’s jurisdiction is limited to the level crossing. According to the law of the land, however, a track once laid is railways’ property and not public property. Stepping onto the tracks should amount to trespassing. Against this backdrop, it seems that the lack of surveillance across railway tracks and crossings has finally had its comeuppance. But it did not have to arrive at the cost of 61 lives cut short at the peak of festive cheer.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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