Issue :   
November 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.         November 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:November' 2018

MATTERS OF PUBLIC POLICY

Amritsar Train Disaster

Stop blame game, ensure public safety !

People watching 'Ravan dahan' Denial of responsibility for any tragic happening is the standard Indian practice in our dirty politics. For the present, I have Amritsar’s Dussehra tragedy in mind when the Jalandhar-Amritsar diesel multiple (DMU) train tore through the assembled crowd on the rail tracks , who were capturing a better view and video shots of the burning of the Ravana effigy at 2 km distance. As many as 61 persons lost their precious lives. A large number of revelers suffered severe injuries. Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amrinder Singh’s government has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the tragedy. What is, however, disquieting is dirty politics for the Amritsar mishap. We know this is a futile exercise which is publicly played to confuse the real issues behind the gross negligence of people’s life and safety by the authorities concerned. The chain of events of this shattering tragedy on an auspicious Dussehra night shows how politics is played by everyone, including political leaders, directly or indirectly connected with the event.
Even the claim of the driver of stone pelting by the crowd is at odds with eyewitness accounts and the videos of the incident on social media. Still, there is unlikely to be any probe by the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) into what is this year’s worst railway mishap.

Mass funeral of victims of the rail accident in Amritsar. The Amritsar Municipal Corporation says that it had not given permission for organizing the celebrations at the small triangular ground with just two gates – one opening on the main gate and the other facing the railway tracks, besides the open dais at one corner that was doubled up as a platform for the Dussehra celebrations. This was, by all means, a risky proposition. Perhaps, the high-profile organizers never bothered about a written order from either the district administration or the Municipal Corporation.
In fact, no one bothered about a possible untoward happening, the usual case of non-governance when it comes to ordinary persons. All that one could see on the dais was the presence of some prominent Congressmen Navjot Singh Sidhu and his wife Navjot Kaur.
Be that as it may. The Dhobi Ghat ground, a small site surrounded by houses on two sides, was not the right location for such a crowd-pulling event, even though a wall separated the ground for the rail track. The location could accommodate around 200 people.
This left the 5,000 strong crowd of people with no choice but to climb the wall and occupy the railway track. This could have been anticipated by common sense of the local administration and police personnel. But who cares for the safety of ordinary people !

It is reported that 25 of the 29 Dussehra events in Amritsar, including the one at Dhobi Ghat, did not have the mandatory clearance from the city’s municipal corporation. Still, local officials and police have pointed fingers at each other as to how these events were allowed to take place without the requisite clearance. This says a lot on the poor state of affairs at the local level.

It is reported that 25 of the 29 Dussehra events in Amritsar, including the one at Dhobi Ghat, did not have the mandatory clearance from the city’s municipal corporation. Still, local officials and police have pointed fingers at each other as to how these events were allowed to take place without the requisite clearance. This says a lot on the poor state of affairs at the local level.

It so happened that when Ravana’s effigy was set on fire, the crowd started spilling over to the tracks. So, amidst loud music and selfies, no one bothered about the incoming train at that time. Well, the least that the organizers ought to have ensured was barricading either through human chain or by deploying the police to prevent the big crowd from getting perched on the rail track. In this complex setting, what about the local railway authorities? They had a clear view of the crowd jamming the rail track. It was a simple matter of communication and prompt action. How come railway guards did not act and inform the high-ups? Here, again, our sickening bureaucratized system comes into play which is never guided by humanitarian factors.

It must be said that even in this era of modern technology, our Railways does not have a surveillance system on tracks. Even if we concede that the Railways is not legally responsible for the tragedy as railway minister of state Manoj Sinha claims. But then, what about humanitarian and moral responsibility? Let us not forget that railways carry crores of passengers everyday in its coaches and that those encroaching on the track are trespassers and they have to be cleared from the tracks, and not mowed down the people watching the Dussehra celebrations.

It is high time the Railways authorities looked into safety facets of rail operations. Six years ago, a committee under the chairmanship of Anil Kakodkar had a close look at safety-related aspects of the railways. It must be gathering dust in some corner of the railways establishment. The Kakodkar panel had suggested a statutory rail safety regulator.
What happened to this suggestion? Railways Minister Piyush Goyal needs to act upon the various suggestions urgently instead of projecting a full-size portrait of beaming Prime Minister Modi on his Railways website. Sycophancy does not work in matters of citizens’ safety!

Stop the rot !

I am not drawing a gloomy picture of the polity. My concern is the increasing social rot which has to be stopped by combined efforts of all instruments of governance, the judiciary included.

Whither the Indian Judiciary vis-à-vis the establishment and people? The Supreme Court, by and large, has been playing its role on the merit of an issue, as an independent authority as defined by our Constitution. Still, my major concern is: when will the apex court start looking within to set in motion the process of reforms from the lowest court upwards, including its own working.
A number of social, political and economic issues have come to the fore in recent years which require a closer look. Not that the judiciary has not responded to vital matters which have come up before it from time to time. However, I believe the time has come to ensure speedy justice to the increasing number of criminal cases in the country.

The moot point is: is our polity getting more and more criminalized? I hope not. But the rising graph of rapes against women and even against minor girls is the most disturbing facet of our functional democracy. In the absence of the Fear of Law and the slower process of justice, a number of issues are raised at the functioning of law enforcement authorities at the grassroots. Comprehensive police reforms alone can provide us the answers. But, who cares? A number of reports on police reforms committees are simply gathering dust on official shelves.

In the country’s changing polity, we have to promptly come down speedily and heavily against rapists and those who take the law in their hands to commit barbaric acts. This is not the India we had bargained for! We cannot and must not allow mischievous and perverted persons to fiddle with the social fabric of our society, be they cow vigilants or fundamentalists to suppress minorities and voices of dissent. Dissent is part of our vibrant democracy which thrives on mutual understanding, tolerance and exchange of ideas freely. This is also the essence of Hinduism that Swami Vivekananda boasted about in his Chicago address on September 11, 1893.

Vivekananda said: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth”.

I am not drawing a gloomy picture of the polity. My concern is the increasing social rot which has to be stopped by combined efforts of all instruments of governance, the judiciary included.
Since the credibility of the bureaucratized and politicized system is at a low ebb, the judiciary holds out some hope for citizens, the media apart. The judiciary can act effectively, if the judicial system is strengthened with the necessary reforms, without political interference!

However, nothing can work unless the existing gaps in the strength of the judiciary are filled in, at all levels. Just look at a few hard facts. Vacancies in High Courts alone have jumped to 40 per cent by August 31, 2018 with 427 posts falling vacant. This means the working strength of judges in H Cs has come down to 652 against the total approved posts of 1,079. The facts speak for themselves as to how the very process of justice gets delayed.
These large vacancies are, understandably, a cause of concern for the establishment as well as the higher judiciary with 39.52 lakh cases pending in HCs, 22 per cent of them more than 10 years. What a shame! Under the circumstances, the plight of poor litigants has gone from bad to worse. The problem is at the operational level. While the government has its own ideas and considerations of merit and integrity of persons recommended by HC and SC collegiums, the process of recruitment gets stuck at all levels.

The question is not of saving the constitution, but of saving the nation from multiple functional aberrations in the system. We have to work for a polity that is just, transparent, functionally efficient, democratically liberal and caring for the common man.

This is unfortunate. This, in a way, starts the process of ‘justice delayed, justice denied’. This matter must be resolved. We will not like to see the government and the judiciary working at loggerheads.

We surely do not want politicized judiciary. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi once toyed with this idea but failed. The Modi government also ought to realise its sole objective needs to be on establishing a transparent and accountable judicial system.

Of course, all appointments ought to be on merit alone, and not on the basis of the hereditary lineage, caste or communal considerations. In this context, I must say that the people have surely the right to know. This needs to be exercised vigorously.

The current air of secrecy at all levels of public functioning has to end. Secretiveness, for that matter, is the antithesis of democracy. In India, the political class has made a virtue of it. As things stand, honesty is at a discount. The question is not of saving the constitution, but of saving the nation from multiple functional aberrations in the system. We have to work for a polity that is just, transparent, functionally efficient, democratically liberal and caring for the common man.

What we are seeking is not goody goody instruments of governance, but a dynamic, forward-looking system. As a catalyst, it should be able to set the pace for qualitative and responsive management of a turbulent polity that India is today and simultaneously ensure individual freedom so that there are more participative democratic structures at all levels. At stake is the rekindling of the ordinary citizen’s hope in democratic institutions, beyond the once-in-five years voting privilege.

Not that India does not have sufficient resilience. It has enough resilience and an infinite capacity to absorb shocks. The very strength of the Indian civilization, for that matter, lies in its ability to withstand the onslaughts inflicted on the body politic by known and unknown villains over a period of time. The failure, in a way, is mainly political. As Justice B Lentin, former Bombay High Court Judge, once put it, “The constitution has not failed the people, nor have the people of India failed the constitution. It is only the unscrupulous politicians who have failed both”. Herein lies the big challenge.