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The post-mortem nation

Two recent major disasters in public spaces grabbed countrywide attention because of their dramatic visual impact: the collapse of an under-construction flyover in Kolkata, resulting in the death of about 30 persons, and the death and destruction caused by a nightly fireworks display gone horribly wrong during a temple festival near Kollam in Kerala, killing some 109 people.

In terms of their proximate causes and details, the two incidents were poles apart. Yet, the immediate and subsequent reactions following the wholly man-made disasters had some things in common, features that have unfortunately become a trademark of this country.

In both cases there were the customary VVIP visits to the sites, followed by the usual announcements of monetary relief for the families of those killed and injured, accusations by rival political camps against each other (of course after self-righteously claiming that there is no intention to politicise the issue), and the announcement of the setting up of a “high-level” enquiry committee or a judicial commission.

All true to form. However, as though to relieve the tedium of the routine, there were some elements of dark humour, wholly unintended. While the flyover collapse was variously attributed to the hand of God, in the case of the Kollam fireworks fiasco, the State government has petitioned the Centre to declare the incident as a ‘national calamity’.

There unfortunately is a common thread linking such disasters taking place with sickening regularity in this country: a nation- wide proclivity to cut corners, flout rules and regulations and laws. One needs to only look at the chaos that goes by the name of traffic in any our cities and towns to realise the enormity of this problem. The ace Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel is reported to have remarked some years ago that he felt much safer driving in a Formula race than driving on Indian roads.

Why does a Vettel “feel” safer driving like crazy on a racing circuit with a dozen others in hot pursuit than driving on Indian roads? Because he knows that on the racing circuits, strict standards of driving and road surfacing are enforced, factors that reduce the chances of mishaps to the minimum.

Yet, those of us who venture out each day in various vehicles on our chaotic roads, or even as pedestrians, do not lose sleep over the fact that our chances of getting injured or killed are far greater than that of a Formula One driver on the racing circuit.

We also conveniently overlook the fact that this risk is largely the result of our collective indiscipline on the roads. Even as we jump traffic lights, cut across lanes, overspeed, overload, overtake, zoom past on two-wheelers minus helmets and indulge in various other reckless and suicidal acts in exercise of our freedom, we self-righteously curse that ubiquitous villain, the government, for not doing enough to improve safety on roads.

Perhaps the most glaring example of myopic risk perception concerns fire safety. If even a fraction of the passion and sense of outrage exhibited after every tragic fire accident is directed towards ensuring that fire safety norms are strictly adhered to while constructing a building and utilising it later, such accidents may become a rarity.

But the reality is that a minuscule proportion of our buildings, commercial or residential, meet fire safety standards. Yet we have no qualms about entering into, working or living in such buildings. There are no agitations or fasts to highlight building safety violations.

The safety standards that we so strongly advocate in the public domain are conveniently ignored in our various ‘private’ activities. Consequently, risk-taking and rule-flouting is largely privatised, throwing the responsibility for dealing with the consequences of reckless and risky behaviour into the public domain.

The Kerala government’s plea to declare the Kollam disaster a national calamity may appear to be exaggerated, but it is indeed appropriate. But not for the reasons that have been adduced: it exposes the real national calamity, which is the extent to which we have travelled down the road to becoming a “post- mortem nation” and consequently one of the most accident- prone societies in the world.

balakesari_k@hotmail.com

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 7:12:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/The-post-mortem-nation/article14257221.ece

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