The ghastly Dasara disaster at Amritsar that has left 59 people dead is a harsh reminder, if any were needed, that government departments have not yet taken official protocols for safety at mass gatherings seriously. In the aftermath of the entirely preventable carnage, in which spectators crowding a railway track to watch burning of effigies were mowed down by a train, there is a frantic effort to pin responsibility on agencies and individuals, and, deplorably, to exploit public anger for political ends. What happened at Joda Phatak in Amritsar points to the basic failure of the district administration and the police, which should have ensured law and order. If the organisers of the event had obtained a no-objection certificate from the police, as reports suggest, what role did the law enforcement machinery play in crowd control? On the other hand, the Municipal Corporation in Amritsar has tried to distance itself, claiming that its permission was not sought, although almost everyone in the city knew it was taking place. The magisterial inquiry ordered by the Punjab government should examine the actions of the revenue authorities and the police in organising the event, and whether rules were ignored to favour the organisers who claimed proximity to some politicians.
Major religious festivals in India are often overshadowed by deadly incidents such as stampedes and fires, ranging from the terrible toll of 249 deaths at the Chamunda Devi temple stampede in Jodhpur in 2008, to the railway station stampede during the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad five years later in which 36 people died. The National Disaster Management Authority has responded to these horrors by creating a guide for State governments and local bodies, laying down a clear protocol to be followed for mass gatherings and festivals. Whether this was followed by the Amritsar authorities in the planning of the Dasara celebrations is one of the questions that must be addressed. There should be a transformation of the way such events are organised, with a lead agency in each State and district empowered to issue instructions, and in turn be accountable for public safety. More broadly, there is a serious deficit of common spaces in cities, towns and villages to conduct spectacular events safely. This is incongruous in a populous country with a tradition of festivals and cultural gatherings. The Punjab government, wiser after the fact, says it will draw up guidelines for the future. At Amritsar, trespass on the track was the prime reason for the accident. A campaign to educate the public that railway tracks cannot be treated as commons, and vigorous enforcement, will reduce the probability of such incidents. The Railways must identify hazard spots for train movement in heavily built-up areas and prevent trespass by barricading them. A culture of safety can take root if governments imbibe it first.