October 22, 2018 @ 2:00 am

22 OCTOBER 2018

Avoidable tragedy

Responsibility must be fixed for the Amritsar disaster. Political spats won’t help

The ghastly Dasara disaster at Amritsar that has left 59 people dead is a harsh reminder, if any were needed, that government departments have not yet taken official protocols for safety at mass gatherings seriously. In the aftermath of the entirely preventable carnage, in which spectators crowding a railway track to watch burning of effigies were mowed down by a train, there is a frantic effort to pin responsibility on agencies and individuals, and, deplorably, to exploit public anger for political ends. What happened at Joda Phatak in Amritsar points to the basic failure of the district administration and the police, which should have ensured law and order. If the organisers of the event had obtained a no-objection certificate from the police, as reports suggest, what role did the law enforcement machinery play in crowd control? On the other hand, the Municipal Corporation in Amritsar has tried to distance itself, claiming that its permission was not sought, although almost everyone in the city knew it was taking place. The magisterial inquiry ordered by the Punjab government should examine the actions of the revenue authorities and the police in organising the event, and whether rules were ignored to favour the organisers who claimed proximity to some politicians.

Major religious festivals in India are often overshadowed by deadly incidents such as stampedes and fires, ranging from the terrible toll of 249 deaths at the Chamunda Devi temple stampede in Jodhpur in 2008, to the railway station stampede during the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad five years later in which 36 people died. The National Disaster Management Authority has responded to these horrors by creating a guide for State governments and local bodies, laying down a clear protocol to be followed for mass gatherings and festivals. Whether this was followed by the Amritsar authorities in the planning of the Dasara celebrations is one of the questions that must be addressed. There should be a transformation of the way such events are organised, with a lead agency in each State and district empowered to issue instructions, and in turn be accountable for public safety. More broadly, there is a serious deficit of common spaces in cities, towns and villages to conduct spectacular events safely. This is incongruous in a populous country with a tradition of festivals and cultural gatherings. The Punjab government, wiser after the fact, says it will draw up guidelines for the future. At Amritsar, trespass on the track was the prime reason for the accident. A campaign to educate the public that railway tracks cannot be treated as commons, and vigorous enforcement, will reduce the probability of such incidents. The Railways must identify hazard spots for train movement in heavily built-up areas and prevent trespass by barricading them. A culture of safety can take root if governments imbibe it first.

The comeback ‘kid’

Malaysia looks all set for a remarkable transition from Mahathir Mohamad

The by-election victory of Anwar Ibrahim, the de facto leader of Malaysia’s ruling coalition, marks another milestone in his dramatic comeback, putting him within touching distance of the prime ministership. During a chequered career, as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s deputy in the 1990s and later as leader of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), he served jail sentences on charges of corruption and sodomy. But he seems determined to put the past behind him. In the May general election, the man who has symbolised democratic resistance for years helped break the 60-year political monopoly of his former party, the United Malays National Organisation. The defeat in that election of the scandal-taintedNajib Razak, a UMNO veteran, was scripted by an unlikely alliance between the nonagenarian Mr. Mohamad and his former nemesis, Mr. Ibrahim. That collaboration came with an assurance of a handover of power by Mr. Mohamad to his protégé at an appropriate time. This was an extraordinary story of reconciliation: Mr. Ibrahim had been sacked in the 1990s by his mentor and imprisoned on allegedly trumped-up charges. In a first step, Mr. Ibrahim was granted a royal pardon and released from prison within days of the election victory of the Pakatan Harapan, the alliance formed by the two leaders.

Underpinning the new bonhomie is a deep reformist instinct to consolidate Malaysia’s status as a middle-income economy.Revelations of controversial investments at Malaysia’s 1MDB state fund that led to the ouster of Mr. Razak provided the impetus to set aside past personal and political differences. For instance, the rhetoric on the incompatibility between Western democratic norms and Asian values had been a distinguishing feature of Mr. Mohamad’s previous tenure of nearly two decades. Conversely, the complementarity between Islam and democracy underlies Mr. Ibrahim’s outlook; a man who draws liberally from the Koran and Shakespeare, depending on his audiences. The response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis had also highlighted serious differences between Mr. Mohamad and Mr. Ibrahim. Curiously, the issue has acquired currency during the recent stock market turmoil. The Malaysian central bank governor has pointed to a potential need to impose capital controls to address the market volatility in recent months. Concerns are also bound to arise over Mr. Mohamad’s strongman past. But the Prime Minister has assured the four-party governing coalition that he will be guided by the norms of majority rule and accord due weightage to the largest partner, the PKR. Underlying the unfolding political transition in Malaysia is the emergence of change with continuity. Such a gradualist course is sustainable over the long term.

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