Each one of the 59 deaths on Dussehra night at Joda Phatak near Amritsar when a local diesel multiple unit train ran over a crowd could have been prevented. Behind the tragedy of these lives lost lies a web of complicities. For instance, local authorities should have been more diligent in monitoring the conduct of the event and the revellers themselves more mindful of the dangers of occupying the tracks. Predictably, the blame game has started in the aftermath, and attempts are being made to pin responsibility and assign blame. But it is futile to single out any one. Multiple abdications turned a night of celebration into one of grieving for several families.
The Dhobi Ghat ground, where the effigy of Ravana had been set on fire, is a small plot surrounded by houses on two sides. A wall separated the ground from the railway track situated on elevated ground. People who couldn’t find space in the ground — according to reports, it could have accommodated only about 200 persons — had climbed the wall and occupied the railway track, disregarding the fact that this could prove to be dangerous. Perhaps, some may have thought that they could jump off the tracks if and when a train approached. It is the same misplaced bravado that makes people jump red lights at level-crossings or traffic junctions, drive on the wrong side of the road or overspeed on busy routes. It seems the organisers of the Dussehra function did repeatedly warn the people perched on the track to be mindful of the passing trains. But questions are rightly being raised about whether these organisers had taken the requisite clearances from the civic administration to hold the function in the first place. If the ground was too small to accommodate even a reasonable crowd expected at an event like the Ram Leela, the authorities ought to have refused permission. What happened in Amritsar shows the disastrous consequences of the absence of a civic culture that can act as a restraint on misguided enthusiasms of the people, while at the same time posing a question mark on the vigilance of administrative agencies and the judgement of politicians in the face of swelling crowds.
The Railways has blamed the civic authorities for letting revellers encroach on and along the tracks. But it may have questions to answer too, such as whether a more alert local network could have warned of the gathering crowds on the tracks in time. A post-mortem of the incident will be undertaken in the coming days. It must ask all the hard questions and spare none. This is necessary to prevent another dark night such as the one at Amritsar.