Swaminathan Aiyer argues that the Indian Railways has caused more deaths than the Bhopal disaster and yet the public has not displayed the same degree of concern:
Consider Mumbai’s suburban rail services. Activist Chetan Kothari used the Right to Information Act to get data on people killed in Mumbai by the Central and Western Railway, which run through the city. Answer: 20,706 people have been killed in the last five years. This is six times as high as Bhopal’s 3,787 immediate fatalities and higher than even the long-term fatalities estimated at 15,000-20,000.
.. Union Carbide was lambasted for not using the best technology available to avert risks and deaths. But do we castigate the railways for not investing in the best safety technologies, and creating barriers to stop people from crossing the tracks? Union Carbide was slated for negligence in a shutdown plant. But the railways continue to be negligent year after year in a running organization that runs down people.
Many of us howled for justice after Bhopal. Many demanded the arrest of Union Carbide chief Anderson. Those convicted last week included Keshub Mahindra, the non-executive chairman with a largely ceremonial position. How many of us have demanded even the dismissal, let alone conviction, of the railway staff, Railway Board members or railway minister for the continuing holocaust in Mumbai? The non-executive head of the railways is, formally, the President of India. Has anybody demanded that Pratibha Patil be prosecuted for continuing railway deaths?
The Bhopal incident is certainly one of the worst and most tragic the world has seen. But, I also feel sorry for the plant engineers or managers at the Bhopal plant, who were convicted after a trial that ran for 25 years. What happened at Bhopal was an accident and not an act of terror with an intention to kill. But, the law says that negligence that leads to death is an offence. It believes that ‘punishment’ will act as a deterrent and reinforce the message that when safety of public is at stake one is obliged to be extremely vigilant.
But why scream for the head of Anderson alone? As any person who has undergone a basic course in Quality management will tell you, every accident can be traced back to human error. The Mangalore air crash was not an act of God, but caused due to negligence somewhere in the process. Did we ask for the arrest of the Chairman of Air India? The crane collapse at the Metro Railway site was a preventable accident. Did any Chairman get arrested for negligence? Each time we can demonstrate and prove that someone was guilty of an act of commission or omission.
As Aiyar concludes:
NGOs and the media suffer from a terrible double standard. They will pounce on negligence by a multinational, and rightly so. But they act as though the public sector has a licence to kill. That is disgraceful.