Service providers must ensure people’s safety

Pushpa Girimaji
Pushpa Girimaji

TIME and again courts have warned service providers that they need to pay utmost attention to the safety of those they serve. Last year, while awarding damages to a woman who sustained serious injuries as a consequence of the sudden collapse of an overbridge at a local train station in Mumbai, the apex court had expressed strong displeasure over the conduct of the Railways.

The reason was obvious — the Railways had failed to repair and maintain the bridge, despite the knowledge that such neglect and negligence could put the lives of those using the bridge at risk. Sure enough, on November 18, 1992, the bridge had collapsed, resulting in several people suffering serious injuries.

Dismissing the contention of the Railways that the court cannot entertain the complaint in view of the bar placed by Section 124-A of the Railway Act and Sections 13 (1-A) and 15 of the Railway Claims Tribunal Act , the apex court in this case had awarded the complainant, Ms Sawant, a compensation of Rs 2.5 lakh along with interest calculated at the rate of 9 per cent. While doing so, it had observed: " It is the duty of the Railways to maintain, in good order, platforms, foot paths, over bridges for ingress and egress of the passengers and all other passenger facilities and amenities. For this maintenance, passengers are paying fee, by way of purchase of journey tickets or platform tickets (Vinaya Vilas Sawant vs Union of India, RP No 864 of 2006)."

It is obvious that the message has not yet gone home because in another case of a more or less similar nature, the commission has once again taken the Railways to task for contributing to the untimely and unfortunate death of a young passenger, while waiting for a train on the platform. In this case, the cause of the death was a poorly constructed water hydrant, meant as a facility for providing passengers with drinking water.

At about 9 pm on August 2, 1999, while waiting for his train to arrive at the Bandikui railway station, Raju Aggarwal had gone to drink water from the newly installed water hydrant on the platform. While he was drinking water, the hydrant had collapsed and fallen on his head, resulting in his death. In response to his parents’ complaint seeking compensation, the Railways argued that first of all, the hydrant was not operational at all, and on that fateful day, four or five passengers, including Raju Aggarwal, had sat on the lower part of the hydrant, resulting in the hydrant falling on Aggarwal’s head.

The Railways cannot in any way be held responsible for this, their spokesman argued. The Railways also contended that the complaint was expressly barred by the provisions of the Railway Claims Tribunal Act.

They even came out with the ridiculous argument that the victim was not a railway passenger, and that the railway tickets found in his pocket had been put there by some unknown person after the accident, to facilitate the claim for compensation later.

The Rajasthan state consumer disputes redressal commission, which first heard the case, dismissed all the contentions. Holding this to be a case of res ipsa loquitur, or "the facts speak for themselves," the state commission awarded the parents a compensation of Rs 5, 10,000, besides costs of Rs 5,000. The national commission, too, dismissed the Railways appeal and upheld the order of the state commission.

While doing so, it referred to Vinaya Vilas Sawant’s case, where it had held that the mishap that had occurred could neither come under the definition of "accident" as described under Section 124 of the Railways Act, nor an "untoward incident" for which compensation was provided under the Railway Claims Tribunal Act.

Hence the jurisdiction of the courts to decide the case was not barred. Pointing out that this was a similar case, the national commission said it saw no reason to differ with the decision of the state commission (Union of India and others vs Shiv Devi Agarwal and Another, FA No 674 of 2003, decided on November 3, 2009).

One hopes that at least now, the Railways will look at passenger amenities more closely, particularly from the point of view of safety.