Every time accidents happen, the usual reactions range from asking for resignations, blaming the government or attempts to draw political mileage. The Elphinstone foot overbridge, on which a recent stampede that killed many people took place, was built in 1972. What were the projections then, and what were the findings of the environmental impact analysis (EIA)? Obviously, there is a co-relation between the project approved and EIA. Let us assume that building standards were adhered to, which is most unlikely. Let us start the investigation from this point. The question is who should investigate? Is the expected impartiality of a high court judge a good enough reason to investigate? The answer is no. What about technical knowledge on safety? Will a safety commissioner of the Railways be able to investigate? Would any officer find fault with his organisation? The Railway minister has asked for an inquiry, without realising the limitations of the system and competency of the investigation team.
India is transforming at a massive speed. The transformation plan includes high-speed roads, high rise buildings, ports, the proposed bullet train, airlines, mega industrial/ power plants and industries. For systems to work effectively, there is a need for the intelligentsia to provide inputs and apply thought, to build safety infrastructure in India. This is essential as the process of transfer and sharing of knowledge has become cheaper, more convenient and effective. With this in mind, I had started a LinkedIn group called “Safety India”. During three years, there have been only three messages. Obviously, nobody is concerned. Every modern automobile is now fitted with Anti-lock Braking System (ABS). Airbags are highlighted as a safety feature by car manufacturers. These are the USP in marketing jargon. There is no servicing provision in the maintenance schedule. Is it not necessary to have some kind of inspection to improve the survivability of the occupants? Which organisation is supposed to look into this omission?
We are talking of speedier trains, large units of goods and services, high rise buildings/skyscrapers. A builder wants to build a skyscraper. The present inspection and monitoring agencies are more builder-friendly than consumer friendly. In case of an emergency evacuation from a high rise, who is supposed to have the capability to evacuate the occupants? The builder or the fire department? We seem to be waiting for a disaster to happen. In case a disaster happens, reactions will range from candle marches to blame game supported by vested groups.
Each modern innovation introduced has a deep-rooted safety impact. Apart from process and system safety, there is a need to study the long-term effects in relation to the environment.
The introduction of new systems and technology has a systematic impact on the overall environment. Let us take the example of induction of radar to improve landing rate. At some point of time, air space will be congested. Aircraft with higher capacities would require improved embarking/disembarking facilities, as well as a systematic exit plan in case of emergencies.
While I concede that enough precautions are planned and factored in by manufacturers/suppliers and operators, still there is a need for system studies and implementation of standardised procedures and periodic monitoring of the same by independent and competent agencies.
Let us take another example. We hear of trains being delayed because of poor visibility, and at the same time, we hear about train speed being increased. To my mind, a collision avoidance radar could reduce the delay due to poor visibility. There is manpower and material loss which never get reported. Since there is no investigation, there are no lessons learnt.
While there may be studies in safety, the impartiality of the studies could be in doubt. Safety rules have been made by vested interests to cater to the lobbies. Over a period of time, the safety system gets diluted. Inhabitants—be they in buildings, malls, or passengers travelling by surface transport—are the sufferers.
The existing shortcomings in the capability of fire-fighting systems may be to the builders’ delight, but who will be answerable in case of a human tragedy? The shortcomings have to be identified honestly and diligently and then rectified. To my mind, safety means creating standards and procedures for induction of new equipment/ technology and changed environment. After this, comes testing and retesting them over a period of time to see the effect of the new induction on the entire environment.
I recommend the formation of a National Safety Board. The Board will have separate wings. The structure could be based on investigation and R&D. While the role of the investigation wing is straight-forward, the R&D wing will be expected to study new technologies and inter-relationship between technical and environment interface.
A detailed organisation can be worked out. The Board should have members who have extensive experience in setting up safety systems and processes in their own organisations. The manpower could be drawn from the Railways, Armed forces, as well as the air and surface transportation and scientific communities. We have enough committed professionals in India to form the core team, but there should be no generalists /independent directors.