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Home > India > News > Columnists > Mahesh Vijapurkar

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Why can't we be careful and change?

October 01, 2008

When the floor of any five-star hotel -- lobbies, the corridors, the restaurant etc -- is swabbed by the housekeeping staff, they put up signs that say 'caution -- wet floor'. Likewise at airports, malls and some of the better corporate offices, but certainly not in government buildings.

This is because they like to warn the people moving about so they don't slip, fall and break a bone. Secondly, the owner of the floor would like to save himself from liabilities should someone indeed fall.

All, you would say, in good order.

Quite careless

Now cut to the Chamunda temple in Jodhpur's [Images] Mehrangad Fort. Close to 160 people died and scores injured in stampede at the start of the Navratri festival because they were victims of a narrow, slippery passage. The devotees had to negotiate that for the darshan.  And what do we have from BJP leader and former defence and external affairs minister Jaswant Singh who is also a trustee of the temple?

He has been quoted in newspapers as having said it is difficult to "control the situation in such places" and that the path to the temple -- which means also from the temple -- had become slippery on account of water from the coconuts broken by the worshippers. When devotes slipped and fell, it caused a panic and triggered a stampede.

Accounts say that the people were even breaking the coconuts on the passage, not just at a spot near the temple as part of the ritual and made the place wet and therefore dangerous. All very careless.

Much the same thing

Cut to January 26, 2005. Much the same had happened at the Mandhardevi Temple near Wai in Maharashtra's Satara district. Official figures said 251 died in a stampede triggered in much the same circumstances. Coconut water, some oil used for lighting the lamps and blood from goats sacrificed.

A Commission of Inquiry confirmed the cause and the government of Maharashtra ordered correctives. And the subsequent years saw a modicum of crowd control, regulations on how to and where to make the offerings to the deity.

I have two questions: should these reports of the commissions set up by one government be limited for use by only the governments that set them up? Of course, there are instances where these reports are also buried by those who set them up in the first place. Or should not the government of Rajasthan have take a cue from the Mandhardevi temple tragedy and improved things? The trust that runs the temple does have a responsibility and if things remained the same year after year, it was because none was sensitive to the potential disasters every year.

Prevention is never the part managing public events or even issues at public places. In fact, did one need such commissions to tell what should have been normal precautions where crowds gather? Of course, one has to hold even the people who throng the places for the risks they take and the risks they impose on the others. All of us throw caution to the winds and safety is thought of after the disaster.

Simple steps

As a people, we lack that sensitivity. We just refuse to even realise that simple steps could avert major disasters and common sense tells me that they we are foolish in waiting for disasters to overtake us before we apply correctives. That is because the authorities are also of the mindset that anything goes as long as they are not caught with their pants down.

We drive along a new road being laid and use that part which has been opened up. We dangerously drive along a stretch that has a sharp dip at one side. No caution, no ropes, no nothing; everything is left by the contractor to the good sense and judgement of the road user. Of curse, in major cities we now have tin sheets being erected to cordon off construction sites on roads but not universally.

Four years ago, driving from Agra [Images] to Bharatpur [Images], my wife and I came across a pit big enough to swallow the car were in. It was right in the middle of the road, with not a caution in place warning users. When I got down and asked the people around, they said that the cavity was around for several weeks. If the cars had not fallen into it, it was the alert drivers one had to thank for, not the authorities who let that remain in place.

Footpaths have manhole covers missing and the streets, if at all, are poorly illuminated. This is so even in major cities like Mumbai and its dormitory satellite towns. In villages, we have bore wells dug and left open for playful and curious children to just slip in and suffer. Television cameras are called, the army arrives and the drama is played out. And a similar tragedy waits its turn to unfold in another location.

Can happen anywhere

These tragedies can happen anywhere. In the monsoons, the steps in any railway station are an invitation to a broken leg. Slippery, uneven, even broken, lead to falls, commuters in their hurry to catch the 8.47 local just get up, curse and move on to avoid missing that train.

How many times have you not seen a taxi being driven with the passenger side door open and the cabby not even aware of it? At a turn it could swing open and the passenger topple out or bang another unsuspecting person or vehicle on the road. If it does not happen often enough, then we need to thank our karma.

Karma, not care, caution

This dependence on the karma alone lets us watch a carpenter who brings his electric cutting tools and drills which have no plug pins on the other end. That, they explain when I ask them, is because the plug points in most places are non-standard and they cannot keep changing them every time they need to use the tools. That's why they are bare, and are kept in place using matchsticks. That is a potential danger we all ignore.

Have you noticed how slippery the mandis are when you go to but vegetables in bulk? And in bigger retail vegetable markets, they sprinkle water to keep the vegetables looking shiny and fresh. One needs to walk gingerly to avoiding slipping. All this, without complaining; it is not genetics to complain.

This list can go on and on but the safety consciousness of the people and the authorities is abysmally low to the extent of being non-existent. Care, caution and concern are always missing. The absence of a sense of safety and the required discipline to secure it in our daily lives is appallingly missing. We keep paying a price for it every now and then. Bigger events we call tragedy, subsuming into it our fatalist attitude. Smaller things we just take in our strides. Not helpful at all.

Oh, why can't we be careful and change?

Perhaps, when the people begin to use the law of torts would the authorities wake up. Soak them for the liabilities. But before that, people too need to be careful, as they should have been in Mandhardevi and Chamunda temples. And elsewhere too.

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