flashback 2004 

Unsafe and sorry

The year saw many violations of the right to safety, writes Pushpa Girimaji

Scant regard for safety rules: A number of children died in the Kumbakonam school fire
Scant regard for safety rules: A number of children died in the Kumbakonam school fire 

Time, it is said, is a great healer. I wonder if time has helped to dull the pain and anguish of those parents who lost their children in the Kumbakonam school fire? As I sit down to look back at the year gone by, the first picture that jumps to mind is that of the children trapped in a school building turned into a burning inferno. Only because those that ran the school had no thought for the safety of those who attended it.

Perhaps in no year did Indian consumers witness as many violations of their right to safety as in 2004. And the results were there for everyone to see. Just a month prior to the Kumbakonam tragedy on July 16, a falling boulder led to the derailment of Mangalore-Mumbai Matsyagandha Express. The scene at the accident site, where several coaches hung precariously from a bridge, looked like a scene from an action movie. But unfortunately, the scene was real and so also the death toll, with 14 persons reported dead and another 62 injured.

In December, another avoidable train accident took a heavy toll when the Ahmedabad-bound Jammu Tawi Express and a local train collided head-on. As many as 37 passengers died and 55 others received injuries. Not a year, it seems, passes without a railway accident claiming precious lives. What a damning track record for the biggest public utility in the country.

Seemed like tragedies were waiting to happen in June and July. Besides the railway accident and the Kumbakonam school fire, a boat mishap in June took a heavy toll ó a boat ferrying 50 pilgrims capsised in the Gomti river in Uttar Pradesh, resulting in the death of more than 30 passengers. It highlighted the administrationís apathy to safety. Between June 28 and July 4, as many as 34 infants died at the Capitalís Safdarjung hospital. And here, the negligence seemed not so much on the part of the doctors as the government, which had failed to provide essential medicines, intravenous fluids, and other life-saving equipment required at the paediatric ward.

One of the most important orders of the apex consumer court delivered during the year was also on an issue concerning public safety. Holding the Airports Authority of India liable for the tragic death of young Jyotsna while coming down the escalator at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi on December 14, 1999, the apex consumer court directed AAI to pay the rupee equivalent of 2,50,000 French Francs along with 10 per cent interest, to the girlís parents. (Geeta Jethani vs Airports Authority of India, original petition no 81 of 2001, decided on August 5, 2004). The courtís message in this case was clear and unambiguous: besides ensuring that all safety features are incorporated into the escalators, those who operationalise them should enforce their stringent maintenance.

Even otherwise, there wasnít much for consumers to cheer about during the year, what with power and water shortages affecting their daily routine. For those who worried about the safety of rail travel, the no-frill airline Deccan Airís offer of cheap tickets came as a positive development.

More so because the competition from the airline forced Indian Airlines and the two private airlines too to come up with various schemes offering discounted fares. If the airfares and the possibility of more no-frill airlines entering the domestic sector brought cheer to the consumer, steep hike in the prices of cooking gas, petrol and diesel and its multiplier effect on the prices of several essential goods took away the joy of travelling cheap on airlines.

The year had its share of strikes by bankers, lawyers, truckers and even BSNL employees, all affecting consumers one way or other. The truckersí strike was the one that affected consumers the most Ė because of the sharp rise in the prices of fruits and vegetables that it brought about.

All in all, itís a relief that the year has come to an end.