The recent Mumbai Mantralaya fire tragedy is yet another retrogressive crucible of sorts in the annals of national safety failures. Hopefully, it would teach us all, not one but a series of lessons for the future, real lessons that would remain ingrained in our minds for long.
While the parameters of national security systemically deserve the priority they should in our national affairs, we are all reminded of the imperatives of national safety only when a high-profile occurrence like the Mumbai Mantralaya fire or a major accident occupies media space. Our attention span, regardless of the enormity of a given safety violation remains limited, as we grapple with evolving realities of life in India. In a fundamental sense, national safety concerns and VVIP security calculus, given their intertwining mutual dependence, ought to be treated at par with one another, a major lesson we take away from the horror of the Mumbai inferno. The obsession and passion for people’s safety and related awareness attributes—that people’s safety is akin and integral to a national mandate—are none too cognisant in our country.
Just scan through some of the advisories in respect to India issued by London and Washington over the past months to get a hint of taste as it were as to gauge how India is evaluated by its friends. Some of these advisories virtually put India in a veritable travel danger zone. Whether these fears are real or imaginary is entirely up to our establishment to respond to. But rather than merely protesting these assertions, we must act and push the right safety buttons to drive home the message loud and clear. We must convince the world that India is no ‘congenitally unsafe republic’ but a passionate democracy of unlimited freedoms.
This is no mean task to accomplish. Some of the questionable national indices of public travel safety standards do need to be looked at with all seriousness. We must thoroughly assess the problems, work out derivative options and an action plan and put it in place, especially in relation to rail travel and road safety in India.
It is time New Delhi to start exploring a fresh set of initiatives and indices of action and configure them into a National Safety Calculus within a reasonable period of time. This should encompass references and advisories to states as well, but only after prudently mandating jurisdictional limits of central safety, including for the railways, national highways, PSUs, civil aviation, land borders and maritime zones.
To identify the states’ safety zone, a due process of consultations involving the states would have to be completed, prior to affixing the specific jurisdictional responsibilities and limits. With the state safety codifications initially put on a recommendatory plane, any entailing Centre-state tensions could be appropriately handled.
From a certain perspective, national security and national safety are both aspirational attributes. They are systemically and integrally bound, yet each on its own plays a major role in shaping the contours of the Indian state in times ahead. It may thus be worthy of examining whether the PMO, within its august confines, has the need and the requisite operating space, at this current critical juncture for a national safety adviser, with a definitive mandate assigned, preferably only after a due parliamentary or political assessment of possibilities. An informed debate that ensues as a result will make certain that the safety dynamic, from an administrative angle and its attributions, shall emerge out into the open.
In today’s world, irrespective of the fact that frameworks of governance are democratic or monarchic, communist or dictatorial, civil or military, secular or theocratic, the right to life is both an inscription and a prescription. A safety calculus enriches that right to life by aiming with a definitive dimension, the factoring of checks and balances, in our daily lives by engendering a safety culture in our midst, where none really exists in an impacting sense. And in the process, the mentors get a better grip over rail and road accidents, hospital and public office fires, even perhaps minimise accidents in the sphere of national defence and make police forces and national disaster management mechanisms more reactive in instilling safety awareness, create safe cities, tier one and the rest, to eventually enrich the interns of India’s democracy.