The recent Kanpur accident was one of the most horrific of it’s type in recent years. Fourteen coaches of the Indore-Patna Express derailed near Kanpur, turning the bogies into mangled blocks of metal. The accident left nearly 150 casualties, while over 200 people were reported to be injured. A routine journey to come home after many months, or the anticipated trip to a relative’s wedding turned out to be the last journey some of these people ever made.
The Kanpur accident was not, however, a one-off disaster. It was actually the sixth railway accident in India in the current year. The previous accidents had not gained much notice due to the lack of casualties. Over the years, India has witnessed many ghastly train accidents caused by myriad reasons – derailment due to terrorist activities, collisions, plunging into water bodies, and more often than not, lack of maintenance and negligence on the part of the authorities.
The rate of road accidents too is much higher still in India. Every day, the newspapers carry reports of road accidents of varying degrees of fatality. Drivers and bikers – and the latter are most often at fault in such accidents – indulge in rash driving and excessive speeding, and flout traffic rules with impunity.
In metro cities like Kolkata, public transportation carries its own brand of danger. Bus and auto rickshaw drivers are prone to road rage and competing with passing vehicles, and brake failures often lead to unspeakably gory accidents of hit and run. In their hurry, the drivers take lawless and rash driving to a new level altogether.
Road and rail accidents are not the only two aspects of man-made disasters in the country. Horrific fires break out all the time in different parts of the country. Kolkata is particularly infamous for the number of fires it has witnessed over the years, and matters do not seem to be improving.
Very recently, a fire broke out in the library building of the SSKM hospital in Kolkata. Thankfully no casualty or significant injuries have been reported. This was definitely not the case with the December 2011 fire at the Dhakuria AMRI hospital, which killed 89 people, mostly the old and invalid patients. There have been other such cases across the country, like the Jaipur oil depot fire of 2009 and the Uphaar cinema inferno in Delhi in 1997.
These are just a few examples of the more appalling incidents that have stuck in the public mind; a quick search on the internet gives a disturbingly long list of such incidents.
Every such incident is a painful reminder of the dangerous, uncertain lives that we Indians live. Every day one has to step out of the house with the ominous feeling that one may never return. There are very few families that have not lost a loved one, or at least had a member suffer injuries, from accidents and disasters. The causes of such accidents are manifold.
On the road, licenses are granted too easily to anyone who cares to sit behind the steering wheel. Unlike most western European countries where gaining a driver’s license is a veritable achievement, in India all one has to do is contact an agent, and with adequate exchange of cash, one might not even have to appear for the driving test in order to get the license! This leaves the majority of the driving community completely ignorant and unbothered about traffic rules and safe driving practices.
Those breaking the laws are rarely caught due to lax policing, and even when caught, they are let off too leniently, often with merely a fine of a couple of hundred rupees. Add to that the lack of proper roads and walkways and traffic signals and jaywalking pedestrians, and there is the perfect recipe for disaster.
Proper safety standards are ignored as a norm in most places.
Most buildings – even schools and hospitals – do not have adequate fire hazard precautions, or even lightning conduction systems. Lack of proper planning leads to inadequate spacing between buildings, increasing fire hazards manifold, as does the presence of tangled masses of wire hanging from electric posts often only a few feet away from buildings. Even post-disaster management leaves much to ask for. Often disaster management personnel are inadequately trained and ill-equipped to deal with accidents and emergencies, and delayed response by the authorities adds to the fatalities.
The Kanpur accident is a testimony to this fact.
Why are we as citizens so unperturbed by disasters like the Kanpur accident, which can otherwise be easily avoided? Indians have a very reckless, fatalistic attitude towards disasters. The callousness and lack of empathy added to a cynical unconcern for individual human life – the population pressure contributes to this without doubt; in a country where more than 50,000 people are born every day, no accident can make much of a dent in the population – dampens the public outrage that such accidents should elicit.
We as a nation have become too used to life ending in horrific, unexpected ways. But this needs to change. Our generation needs to bring about a change in the public mindset, so that every single car accident, every single artificial disaster triggers countywide awareness, and improvement in laws and procedures, and most importantly, habits of the people.