A lack of the moral courage to accept shortcomings is a malaise from which all government agencies suffer ~ it now extends to inquiry panels. If there was “shock” over the death of 23 persons in the stampede at an over-bridge at the Elphinstone Road station on the Western Railway line of Mumbai’s suburban system, there will be deep dismay over the probe into the tragedy by a team of senior officials. Few train users will “buy” the argument that heavy rain, and a misinterpreted cry caused the overcrowding and resultant stampede.

The “findings” will be perceived as an attempt to cover up protracted negligence on the part of the authorities. It has never been anybody’s case that specific officials were to blame for the tragedy, hence the attempt to offer an explanation just one step short of an “act of God” will do little to restore public confidence in the system and its safety-measures. A sense of indifference to the welfare of the travelling public is the “message” more likely to be perceived. The reaction of the Railway minister is awaited ~ this would be the apt occasion for him to read out the riot act, rather than indulge in gimmicks such as banning further use of saloons by senior officials.

The series of recommendations that the inquiry panel has also submitted add up to an indictment of the way the situation at Elphinstone Road was being “managed”. Did it need so intense a tragedy for the authorities to think about improved CCTV monitoring of the passenger rush, or deployment of patrols with walkie-talkie communication? And what about previous reports ~ including one from the Comptroller & Auditor General ~ that the bridge linking Elphinstone Road with the Parel station on the Central Railway network was much too narrow? If any heads are to “roll” it should be those who did not implement a series of assurances (from the former Railway minister, among others) that an alternative bridge would be constructed. The argument that only very limited time-spans were available for widening the over-bridge echoes the alibi for an “unauthorised” repair operation that triggered a major derailment in UP.

Western Railway officials’ pointing out that the over-bridge had suffered no structural damage would appear to justify the argument advanced by the minister of state for railways soon after the stampede. As lame an excuse as the one that over-bridges were not as integral to railway safety as the condition of the track and rolling-stock. Totally ludicrous is the explanation that a flower-seller’s lament phool gir gaya was interpreted as a stampede-triggering pul gir gaya’ ~ that it found mention in the inquiry report is confirmation that the deaths in a series of mishaps have not stirred the Railways into the remorse that precedes remedies.