Mumbai stampede: Searching for scapegoats

| | in Oped

While the railways deserve much of the blame for their apathetic manner of functioning, it appears that they have also been made convenient scapegoats for all our ills since we cannot blame fate alone for all our troubles. We need to inculcate self-discipline and civic responsibility if we want to prosper

The tragic events in Mumbai that led to the death of 23 commuters at the Prabhadevi, aka Elphinstone Road railway station due to a stampede on a narrow footbridge that connects the station to Parel and the suburbs, has been the focus of intense scrutiny in public media for some time now. While frantic attempts will now be made to take corrective steps, we need to look elsewhere as well.

There has been almost universal condemnation of railway authorities for their lackadaisical approach to the issue of public safety and infrastructure development as well as responses to emerging situations. The Union Government too has come in for intense criticism for allegedly getting its priorities mixed up and focusing on spending vast sums of money on fanciful ideas, such as the Bullet train, while improvement of basic infrastructure is hampered due to non-availability of funds with grevious consequences, be it as in this instance, or train accidents that seem to occur almost on a daily basis.

While the railways deserve much of the blame for their apathetic and hidebound manner of functioning, it appears that they have also been made convenient scapegoats for all our ills since we cannot blame fate alone for all our troubles.

But as William Shakespeare put it well when he wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves….” because in all discussions of the numerous tragedies we are confronted with, whether on public forums or in our homes, we conveniently ignore the elephant in the room.

This is to put it bluntly our own almost universal lack of qualities that go into the making of character along with lack of social awareness and respect for the law. What other conclusion can we possibly draw from the video, now in public domain that allegedly shows a bystander molesting a dying woman?

Even in the present instance, what is now emerging from first person accounts appears to be that due to heavy rains some commuters had blocked the exit while crowds swelled and increased the pressure on the bridge as more and more trains arrived. This crowding may have well resulted in the stampede.

What has been conveniently ignored is the fact that the Indian Railways was aware of the issue and had constructed another foot over bridge which runs alongside the Jagannath Bhatnakar Marg to mitigate the problem. Reports suggest that this bridge was at a distance and considered inconvenient by a majority of commuters.

However, such tragic events are just a symptom of a even bigger tragedy that has befallen this blighted land.

The reforms that Lord Macaulay introduced in the 19th century to base secondary education on utilitarian lines to deliver “useful learning” — a phrase that  to Macaulay was synonymous with Western culture, was in essence established by the British to train clerks who would assist their administrators.

Independence saw little reforms in education and the system did little to inculcate character qualities in students or teach them about their social and civic responsibilities. One needs to be in the vicinity of even the most exclusive of our schools when it is either commencing or finishing for the day to get a sense of this issue.

Vehicles are haphazardly double parked, children cross busy thoroughfares anywhere they please with not a care about their own safety or the safety of others.

The schools themselves have conveniently ignored the mayhem outside their gates and show no inclination to control this state of affairs. Sadly, we are probably the most impatient and selfish people in the world.

If the Indus Valley Civilisation, which we tend to claim as our very own, could have a planned and extensive drainage system why are our cities and town so lacking now? Why is it that we have little hesitation in keeping our own homes spick and span, but think little of throwing garbage in the streets?

Let alone spelling the word, we have little understanding what queues imply in a civilised world. Standing in queues, waiting for lights to turn green, throwing litter in a bin, being polite to others and other such simple niceties seem to be completely foreign to our DNA.

This is not because we are incapable of better behaviour; after all we tend to be model citizens when we live abroad, but because we do not drill it into our population when they are young.

Unless and until we start to focus on providing education that inculcates self-discipline, social awareness and civic responsibility as an integral part from Kindergarten onwards, there is little that will ever change here.

The post teens generations are too old to be taught new tricks and can only be made to follow social norms through a mix of incentives and punishment.

There is a need for introducing summary punishments such as caning which went a long way in inculcating discipline and respect for the law in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. If we are still intent on supping at the high table, nuclear weapons and a burgeoning economy can only get us that far. Transformation of our education system will be the key to a prosperous future.

(The writer is a military veteran and consultant with the Observer Research Foundation)

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