17 - 01 - 2019

Amritsar tragedy a Black Swan event

The tragic death of more than 60 people watching and video-graphing the Ravan effigy burning by standing on the railway tracks near Amritsar on Dasehra is a classic but very unfortunate Black Swan event.

Black Swan events are not altogether unexpected events, but people, based on their experience, wrongly conclude that there is no possibility of an untoward event occurring and proceed with the current practice without anticipating the lurking danger. As the days pass by, a goat in the farm gains confidence that the farmer will never sell it to the butcher based on its past experience that he has not sold it so far, but fails to understand that it is reared for the ultimate kill, if not today. 

People interviewed at the tragic site say that the Ravan effigy burning event had been happening for about 20 years, except for last year, at the same venue and people watching the event by standing on the tracks and no untoward incident had happened. This proves that this is a Black Swan event.

Trespassing rail tracks is an offence

First things first. Under Section of 147 of Indian Railways Act, trespassing railway tracks is a punishable offence with a penalty of imprisonment up to six months and or fine up to Rs 1,000. Railway tracks are the exclusive Right of Way (RoW) of the Railways and even at rail-road crossings, trains get clear precedence over road vehicles because trains cannot stop or reduce the speed as much as the automobiles. 

Trains run on the tracks allotted to them and, unlike automobiles, never run out of their way except in cases of derailment or collision. The DMU train, which mowed down people, ran at the assigned speed of 90 kmph and as soon as the driver saw the crowd on the tracks, he was able to reduce the speed to only 65 kmph because of the curved line. The visibility for the driver was also minimal in the night time and given the triple line, the crowd also were not able to gauge on which line the train was coming. Another train which came 30 seconds earlier made people move to the line where the EMU train ran over them.

It is common in India for people to trespass closed railway gates even with their two-wheelers and die regularly on the tracks. Given 30,000 manned level crossings, if trains are slowed down on each level crossing, it is impossible to run trains at speeds more than that of bullock carts. 

Mob mentality

The second issue is regarding mob mentality that if people stand in large numbers, trains will not hit them. There is no mechanism to stop the speeding train suddenly even if the driver senses the danger. Had the crowd which stood at the rail tracks internalised the approach of some politicians, who always picket the trains, either by standing or lying down across the tracks before the non-moving trains, they would have learnt the trick of how not to endanger themselves even when standing on the tracks. 

Fireworks near rail lines

The third issue is that of arranging the fireworks in close quarters to the railway lines. When the Ravan effigy was lit up, fireworks fell on all sides in a radius of a few hundred metres. Had some portion of the fireworks gone into the coaches of trains, it would have resulted in a major fire accident of the train. 

The venue of the event cannot ensure the safety of the audience or of the trains that pass through the tracks nearby. The flaw in the selection of the site for an event to which thousands of people gather resulted in such an accident. 

The fact that the event was held at the same site for 20 years does not mean that the site is safe for the event. Murphy's Law "If there is a flaw in the system, the system will fail either today or some other day" was proved, but at the cost of 60-plus lives, plus many losing their limbs.