Ensure safety at public places
Pushpa Girimaji

We talk of world-class airports, state-of-the art metro system. But we cannot make our roads and pavements safe for citizens. Pits dug on the roadside and cuts made in the roads turn them into death-traps, particularly during the monsoons. We talk of nuclear power, but fail to maintain even minimum standards of safety when it comes to power supply lines. Loose, naked wires left hanging dangerously by the roadside char and electrocute people at regular intervals, particularly during the rainy season.

We are so proud of our history, our ancient civilisation. We talk in glowing terms of the Indus Valley Civilisation and the sophisticated storm water drainage and effluent-disposal systems developed ages ago. Yet, even in the year 2010, we are unable to provide a proper drainage system to tackle rainwaters that flood our roads and pavements. Or provide a proper sewage system with all sewage canals and manholes fully covered. As a result, we have people drowning in open manholes and nullahs.

This year, the monsoons have just begun, and already we have reports of tragic deaths caused by the callous indifference shown by the civic authorities and power supply undertakings to public safety. In the nation’s Capital, for example, unsafe power lines have been responsible for the death of six, while injuring two. In Hyderabad, too, a combination of rains and faulty, live electric lines killed eight people during the last week of June and the first week of July.

In similar circumstances, in Ahmedabad, two children died and seven people sustained severe burn injuries. Things were no better in the electronic city of Gurgaon. On July 14, a four-year old boy, waiting for his school bus with his mother, fell into an open manhole. In December last, a six-year-old girl had met a tragic end, only because the civic authorities had not bothered to close a manhole. Similarly, last year an open, loose wire lying by the roadside had killed a resident of Gurgaon — a retired defence service officer — even as he parked his car near a shopping centre and got out.

In all these cases, what is apparent is the criminal negligence exhibited by the civic authorities and other service providers, and the complete lack of accountability. After every tragic death caused by an open manhole, local authorities blame the thieves who stole the manhole cover. Surely, is it that difficult to put a theft-proof cover? Or for that matter, make a proper investigation of all manholes just prior to the onset of the monsoons?

In fact, investigations after every such tragedy has revealed that the administration failed to act even after receiving complaints from residents about such open death-traps. This reminds me of a news item from Turkey that appeared on the front page of a newspaper some time ago. It was about two Indian executives working for a joint venture company in Turkey, who had been jailed and faced imprisonment for anywhere between four and 10 years following the death of two children by drowning in a trench dug for laying oil pipelines by the company. We must draw lessons from such examples. When an agency — whether government or private — ignores public safety, it is not enough to identify and punish those actually responsible for it. CEOs have to be held accountable, too. And that should mean facing prison sentence as well as paying huge amounts as compensation to the victims. Only that will put a stop to such avoidable deaths. We also need to have a law that makes it mandatory for every civic authority as well as those government departments that deal with the public and public places, to provide 24-hour toll-free helplines on which citizens or consumers can call and complain of open manholes and loose electrical wires and other safety issues.

There should be a clear timeframe within which such complaints have to be attended to, and the caller informed. The law should also prescribe severe penalty for violations. Without such stringent measures, the monsoons will cease to be a joyous season.