On Thursday, a school bus carrying schoolchildren was run over by a train at an unmanned railway crossing in Uttar Pradesh—13 children lost their lives and eight were grievously hurt. The loss of young lives, the shock and grief, triggered outrage. Aggravating the anguish was politics—about what Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said, and the many responses and interpretations.
The rage of the people, worsened by the dodge-weave rhetorical response of the administration, reflects the sense of frustration and helplessness at the episodic failures of the system. At the crux of these tragedies is the casual approach to causalities, the measures of governance that are ostensibly in place to prevent such tragedies. The details of the tragedy represent the classic cliché about governance—what can go wrong does go wrong. The unstated statutory warning on governance should read: Systemic sloth kills.
Consider the elements to appreciate the multiple failures that made this tragedy. The UP Police estimated that around 21 children were packed like sardines in the van. The driver, the police suspect, was 17 years old and either did not possess a driver’s licence or had one issued illegally. The driver, eyewitness accounts say, was driving with headphones on. The railway crossing was unmanned. The gate mitra at the crossing asked the driver to stop but he proceeded regardless. It is also not clear if the van was cleared by the school to carry students. The school itself was apparently unregistered.
Juxtapose the elements of the tragedy on the systemic landscape. Many of the factors and elements of the tragedy are in the domain of known knowns. First, let us take the legality of the school. The police have arrested the principal and the school was unregistered. The fact is that there are more than 24,000 unrecognised schools with over 33 lakh children in elementary schools across India. You could ask why it existed and you could also ask why parents chose this school over government schools.
Police investigations show that the van was sans a number plate and did not have the required clearance from the transport department. The van, with a capacity to ferry seven, carried 21 children. But this is not unique or unknown. Kids and bags hanging dangerously out of rickshaws and vans is a common visual across towns. Ditto with the phenomenon of rash bus drivers—a few weeks earlier in Indore, a driver crashed a bus into a truck, killing five students. But administrations turn a blind eye to this phenomenon—a complex paradigm of costs, compulsions and considerations.
Did the driver have a valid licence? The police suspect the driver was underage. In 2016, the road transport ministry revealed, drivers below 18 years of age were involved in 18,378 accidents, including 5,383 fatal ones. Did he or not possess a driver’s licence? And the scary factoid here is that Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari is on record saying that over 30 per cent of driver’s licences are “bogus”—unsurprisingly, traffic accidents have claimed over 8 lakh lives, or over 350 a day, since 2011.
Worse, the driver is suspected to have been driving with headphones on. Data show that just in 2016, drivers using a mobile phone while at the wheel caused 4,976 accidents, killing 2,138 persons and injuring 4,746 others. Accidents and deaths, though, have not deterred drivers using phones while driving in cities, towns and on high-speed highways—it is not just commercial drivers, but also educated owner drivers who tend to believe that they are insured from the consequences of recklessness.
The police say the driver defied the gate mitra contracted by the Railways to stop/regulate traffic. How vulnerable are travellers on unmanned crossings? Between 2011 and 2016, government data (NCRB/MoRTH) show, 12,043 persons were killed in road accidents at rail crossings, or five a day, including 1,326 deaths in 2016 alone. Sure, the Railways have spent over `11,000 crore to eliminate unmanned crossings, but there are still 7,701 unmanned crossings, of which 3,479 are on broad gauge tracks, and 800 in Uttar Pradesh. Why not put up gates funded by the Railways and the state at the crossings till a road overbridge or an underpass is built? It would cost some money, and surely some of the 25 million people, nearly the population of Australia, who applied for 90,000 railway jobs could be deployed to prevent tragedies.
Grief frequently surfaces between the grey fault lines of governance—especially in health care and personal safety, and areas where the government is obliged to deliver goods and services. The question that begs to be asked is could this tragedy have been averted/avoided. There is the inadequacy of administrative accountability. And, like it or not, there is an inexplicable social ambivalence of the 'chalta hai' kind to entrenched risks.
The crux of the problem is that government systems are outdated—scripted for an earlier era, somewhere between the 19th and 20th centuries, whereas the needs of the people are of the 21st century. Governance requires the rewriting of processes, regulation and oversight—there is no dearth of literature on the how and what of that which needs to be done. Implementation demands installation of an architecture that rewards initiative, performance and innovation by administrators.
The anger among people stems from a sense of helplessness about the sameness of issues. Traditionally, in democracies, governments spend time explaining why something was done. India's politicians are frequently found explaining why something could not be done. Politicos may as well recognise that they are judged not just on intent but execution of intent. The distance between assurance and achievement reveals the ability of the elected to get the appointed to deliver. Anti-incumbency is essentially insolvency of promises made.
Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution,and Accidental India