We do not know if the parents of the four students who died in Chennai while travelling on the footboard of a bus have contemplated even complaining about the inadequacy of bus services and lack of safety monitoring that caused the mishap. But they would most certainly be happy – if that were possible under the circumstances – that the Madras High Court has taken suo motu cognisance and has asked the state to explain.
In most cases of these types, the grief-stricken families lament both the accidents and hardly ever manage to successfully wrest compensation because, as the state assumes, it is just one of those things that happen. In a country where the law of torts – a cause arising from civic lapse - is not even practiced, the Madras High Court’s sensitivity in constituting a bench is both remarkable and welcome. Time someone asked questions.
Tamil Nadu would have to now explain why the accident happened, and why the children were forced to precariously hang on the footboard to reach their schools and what steps it would take to avoid such gory instances from recurring. The court, as The Hindu reported, referred to “the grievance of the public” about the inadequacy of service – in this case, bus service. If the court goes to the logical end, the precedence could lead to better governance.
Blaming the children for what can unthinkingly be thought of as foolhardiness, putting themselves at risk is one thing. Getting the state or its instruments to not lapse in planning, executing and delivering public services is another. The latter’s failure cannot be routinely ignored. Concerned authorities speak of tweaking what they have only after accidents where lives are expended. Then, it is back to the usual.
Improving the services to which a citizen is entitled to -- so woefully inadequate in all spheres except where the rich alone, who have gated themselves, can afford private arrangements as if they are a state by themselves -- seems so impossible an expectation. The state has slipped so badly that even arresting it at the level at which services function would be a miracle. Except for announcements, infusing funds without even monitoring outcomes is the way things are dealt with.
The powers that be do need to be reminded of the pitiable level of anything that is labelled ‘public’ – bus services, trains, stations, streets, sidewalks, toilets, schools, markets, or, just anything under the sun that is funded from people’s money – but the users know what the problems are and what need to be fixed. There have been rare cases of compensation for the civic hurt in the absence of ordinary care.
If one strives hard – and at some cost in hiring a lawyer – things work out but the striving can be long and hard. In 2011, the Bombay High Court awarded a Nashik resident, PundalikAtke Rs 2 lakh for his injury due to “gross negligence” of the Public Works Department, Maharashtra. The PWD had not performed its obligatory duty of even putting up a warning notice near the ditch and had “failed in the duty of maintaining the road in proper condition.” Atke, riding a two-wheeler, was hurt because of the bad road.
If everyone was an Atke, and conscious of their rights as citizens, and if the lawyers were game enough to take it up in the courts, it is quite possible that the number of cases which are now pending in civil courts would pale before the numbers that would then arise.
One looks with hope at the Madras High Court’s suo motu steps which cannot be dismissed as judicial activism. In fact only such steps could put the authorities across the country to shame and prod them to be conscious towards their responsibilities and of citizens’ rights. The worrying aspect is that the providers of public services do not treat citizens as consumers. The citizen’s entitlements come from taxes collected from someone and the consumer’s rights have to be respected.
Consumer’s rights are quickly restored are mostly related to what commercial establishment have done or not done for the price they collect from the buyer or user. The aggrieved are daunted by the court procedures which involve adjournments, lawyers’ fees, and long waits, as was the case with Atke who did not let go easily. Everyone shouldn’t have to wait as he did for 16 years. Perhaps the Madras High Court which promptly took up the issue would be as speedy in its judgment. That would give a boost to governance, or to put it other way, ensure good governance.