The disaster that struck a bridge across the Machchhu river in Gujarat’s Morbi killing at least 140 people, including several children, poses once again the enduring question: do governments learn from such catastrophic events?
India is on course to becoming the most populous nation on earth in the near future, and every mass gathering is a challenge to the State and district administrations. Religious festivals and holiday events have a record of attracting staggering crowds, and call for an entirely new paradigm of risk reduction. This is not the same as chronic risk in an area such as road safety, where systems must operate round the clock, all through the year. India’s road safety record is among the worst in the world.
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Lack of vigilance
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mass gatherings as “more than a specified number of persons at a specific location for a specific purpose for a defined period of time”. The district administration in Gujarat failed to recognise that the site of the bridge and the events drawing crowds, on the occasion of Chhath Puja in a remote location, called for far greater vigilance. It is not difficult to see that a large population and increasingly easier mobility could spell disaster in a small place such as Morbi. The onus on administrations to ensure safety is even stronger today.
This is consistent with the objectives of the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which was concluded in 2015 in Japan to aid development, with an implementation timeframe that runs up to 2030. The Sendai covenant says the state has the primary role to reduce disaster risk but that responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders including local government, the private sector and others. The framework aims for the “substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries”.
What happened at Morbi shows that this approach is yet to be internalised, and administrative structures have failed to grasp their responsibility. While the bridge was given to a private company to repair, and a fee was reportedly collected on the day of the collapse, there is no acknowledgement of the failure of the district administration and police to ensure the structure’s integrity and to regulate crowds.
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High-visibility action typically follows a disaster, not before the event. A former adviser to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) from Gujarat lamented this trend at a closed-door management event in Chennai recently. This was not the way he had intended it to be. The NDMA had originally advocated internalising risk reduction in all government departments, rather than allow preventable disasters to occur and then pursue rescue efforts through a response machinery. That did not happen, and no credible risk audit is done by government departments before allowing mass gatherings. They leave it to the NDMA and State disaster agencies to handle, if things go wrong.
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A matrix for safety
Scientific literature has some suggestions. An indicative matrix for risk reduction was outlined by researcher F.T. Illiyas and colleagues in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, where the basic preparation starts with the decision to hold an event. This is followed by a sequence of preparatory steps — event approval, risk assessment, integrated planning and risk reduction. Some of the key elements of this approach include assessing the location and nature of the event, expected crowd size, site visit, safety review, crowd profile, analysis of prior disasters, crowd density, surge management and emergency services. Adjunct steps include audio announcement systems, live surveillance, safeguards, barriers and evacuation plans.
Evidently, such an institutional process can be made part of the planning in all States, wherever a good one does not exist. As the surgeon and bestselling author Atul Gawande wrote in a book, The Checklist Manifesto, a systematic checklist has helped save lives in medicine. It works across disciplines. Scientific checklists can avoid slip-ups encountered in public safety and mass gatherings.
Applying the risk reduction framework and an event checklist to the Morbi bridge could have prevented crucial lapses — the government would have rigorously inspected the repairs carried out to a 19th century colonial-era bridge, reportedly by a company with no connection to the field.
Revenue and police authorities would have had to prepare for crowd management, the State Disaster Management Authority would have prescribed safety requirements, including lighting (which was absent, hampering rescue), numbers allowed on the bridge would have been regulated, and adequate emergency services would have stood by. Besides averting loss of life, such measures can prevent the prolonged trauma and economic losses borne by the families of victims and by the injured survivors.
A series of past catastrophic incidents should have institutionalised the safety framework. The Thekkady tourist boating accident in 2009 in which 45 people died led only to patchy rules on providing life jackets to passengers in different States. While the number of stampede deaths has come down overall, even this year 12 people died in Katra at Mata Vaishno Devi shrine on January 1, and 25 people lost their lives nationwide last year in stampedes (NCRB data). Religious places have witnessed most of the stampedes, and many shrines located in remote locations are small, while the visitor numbers continue to rise.
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Given that public spaces, pathways, roads and bridges are the responsibility of the state, visitors place their lives in the hands of officials and administrators when using these. While unexpected events will continue to cause accidents and natural disasters may strike these sites, there can be no outsourcing of liability in the holding of planned gatherings and maintenance of built structures.
It will take strong commitment and an institutionalised framework, not to mention full adherence by district administrations, to make the public feel that public places are indeed safe.
(G. Ananthakrishnan is a Chennai-based journalist.)