Just what liability do official agencies have towards the protection of life and limb of citizens in a public place?

In November last year, when the annual rain spells had once again turned the fair weather city of Chennai into a patchwork of broken and dirty localities, a 24-year-old woman named M. Sarala on her way home fell into an open, water-filled pit in a bustling part of T. Nagar and died traumatically. Like a macabre horror film, no one seemed to notice a grown person falling into a pit meant for a drain, until the victim's mother found her body at the same spot the next day.

What happened to the young school teacher could have happened to any of the thousands of shoppers who usually throng North Usman Road. Yet, even a death of this kind does not shake the prosperous gold and textile district of Chennai.

The incident raises the question of public liability. Just what liability do official agencies have towards the protection of life and limb of citizens in a public place? In the case of the incomplete storm water drain being constructed by the Corporation of Chennai, in which Sarala died, there are two key issues: who was responsible for the avoidable death, and what was the Corporation of Chennai's approach to payment of compensation to the family?

The Corporation said in reply to an RTI petition, that police have registered a case against the contractor. Asked about the cause of Sarala's death, the CoC chose to quote Pondy Bazaar R1 police statements to newspapers immediately after the incident, which said, “alleged death of victim due to fall into the pit.”

The civic body did not mention any proceedings initiated in court, for payment of compensation. It said in reply to a question on what compensation, in cash or other form was paid to the family, “Honourable Chief Minister has declared compensation amount of Rs. 2 lakh to the family of victim from the Chief Minister's public relief fund and has been disposed accordingly.” Is there no concept of torts applicable in such a glaring case of death due to negligence and inaction?

Going further, does the CoC learn from its terrible mistakes? What action has it taken to ensure that such homicide-by-neglect does not recur? The civic body says: “(On) all the roads where storm water drain work is being taken up, proper barricading arrangements with caution board and sign board is being placed while carrying out the work.” But just last month, this writer found a long open drain under construction, several feet deep, with scores of protruding metal rods along the perimeter of Kannammapet burial ground, again in T. Nagar. There are many such sites waiting to snare more Saralas. If the CoC were to ask citizens to file complaints, as it should, it would receive scores, if not hundreds.

What comes out clearly in all this is the attitude of the CoC, the Chennai City Traffic Police, the Highways Department, the CMDA, the Regional Transport Authorities and other agencies responsible for public safety. It is uniform, given the state of city infrastructure and enforcement. Courts view it as culpable inaction. This persists in spite of death and disability caused by preventable accidents. Unfortunately, most of these cases involving the weak and the less affluent go without vigorous legal pursuit that should result in extraordinary compensation for victims and families, to be extracted from the purses of wilfully indifferent, sometimes corrupt officials.

Chennaiites should compel the government of the day and civic agencies to accept responsibility for the fundamental right to life and free movement in public places, rather than be dazzled by announcements of fancy and expensive beautification schemes for roads and footpaths. The city must set right walking spaces, and enable all citizens — old, young, and the infirm — to use roads, buses, trains, parks and so on safely. It doesn't take much money, but it needs a lot of political will and enforced accountability.

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