Amritsar tragedy: Used to crossing tracks at will, Joda Phatak locals say 'we're victims, why treat us as criminals'

A fast-moving train ran over people, whose Dusshera celebrations had spilled onto the railway tracks in Amritsar's Joda Phatak area on Friday, killing sixty. Three days later, locals are unable comprehend how this could have happened. They are still stitching together events that led to this disaster and are angry with government agencies that have pointed fingers at them for being on the tracks. For, living right next to the railway tracks, the locals have become accustomed to crossing them at will. They are also angry because they feel that no government agency - the railways, police or administration - has accepted any responsibility for the incident. This has left them feeling alone, isolated and burdened with all of the blame.

As a result, when railway services were resumed on this stretch on Sunday at 2 pm there was stone pelting by angry young men and then a mild lathicharge by police in which three were injured. This caused further heartburn in Judges Colony, Krishna Nagar and adjacent areas of Joda Phatak. Forcibly restoring train movement only seemed to demonstrate to these people that their suffering hasn't moved the authorities. They complain that only six policemen were present on the day of the function but more than 1,500 came to prevent them from protesting after 60 people have died.

"Now, that the administration has decided to resume train services, we have been locked into our neighbourhood and we are being told not to step out, although we are the victims," says Vishal, a resident of Krishna Nagar who has lived near the tracks since 2010 and works as a marketting executive for an edible oil company in Chandigarh. "We never committed any crime but we are being treated as if we have." Further, a written statement from the train driver in which he says he did not halt his train because locals were throwing stones at it, has enraged people, who deny this ever happened.

Despite their anger, when the first train passed through the Phatak on Sunday afternoon Vishal and his neighbours rushed to watch it go by, as if it were a novelty. But the passing of a train is nothing new here. Railway officials in Amritsar say this crossing is one of the busiest routes in the region, through which 38 to 40 pairs of trains pass daily, to Delhi, Howrah and Attari on the border with Pakistan.

File image of Relatives of victims of train accident mourn at civil Hospital at Joda Phatak in Amritsar. PTI

File image of Relatives of victims of train accident mourn at civil Hospital at Joda Phatak in Amritsar. PTI

Trains are a commonplace and inexorable feature of the social and economic life of everyone who lives here. The very name Joda Phatak is a railroad term, literally translated to Punjabi. It means two gates, a reference to the fact that this is a double railway crossing. These twin gates determine everything from what time locals wake up to when they will return after work. Whether the level crossing is open or shut also determines their expenses on fuel, because to avoid the gates when they are closed means taking a different, always much longer, route into the heart of the city.

Joda Phatak cuts the city of Amritsar in two. The situation is simple, as Vishal puts it, "Idhar walon ko udhar jaana hai (those on this side of the tracks have to get to the other side)." Decades ago this part of town was all fruit orchard and virgin forest but now it has 100 overcrowded residential colonies. The railway station, bus stand, hospitals, prominent schools, markets, government and private offices and the Golden Temple are "udhar"- across the tracks - which people from Joda Phatak have to cross to get to.

Whether one should stroll across these tracks on foot or wait at the manned railway crossing is a critical part of everyday decision-making here. But this decision does not necessarily follow much consideration. Usually, it makes itself. For example, a ride in a taxi from the railway station to a dhobhi ghat (a two minute walk from Joda Phatak) costs Rs 10. But if a cabbie is asked to cross the barrier and enter their colonies the rate is Rs 50. "Just hearing of crossing the gates hikes prices, whether or not they are ultimately found open," says Kuldeep Singh Raju, an artificial jewellery supplier who crosses the tracks daily for work. Naturally, people disembark at dhobhi ghat, then traipse across the tracks on foot, sometimes carrying supplies.

Similarly Amritsar railway station is a 10 minute drive beyond the twin gates, or around 3 kilometres. But if the gate is closed, this trip can take 30-35 minutes. If there is a traffic jam at both gates, the wait can be an hour. The alternate route, around 6 km long, takes 45 minutes due to regular high traffic. Hence people scramble to get past these gates when they open, ironically causing more congestion.

Residents wince at the thought of being "caught" with both Joda Phatak gates closed. "Chances are, after one gate opens, the other will close. The waiting can seem endless," says Sachin Bhalla, a resident. For pushcart vendors waiting half an hour at the Phatak is a daily ritual to grin and bear. This is because the wholesale vegetable market can only be reached by crossing the track. For two-wheeler drivers there is a six feet wide underpass built by the railways built about a decade ago. Locals love it but it gets flooded when it rains.

Besides, there are pedestrians, some living less than ten feet from the tracks, who have devised their own impatient routines around the barriers. A few scoot under the closed level crossings and dash for the other side-a 15 metre sprint before the train gets them. Some claim they have mastered the craft of identifying fast trains from slower ones: They let fast trains to go by and leap across if it is slow. At times they dodge three trains, each at different speeds.

All pedestrians are united by one goal: to make it to the main road quick. Yet, they also recall a wedding party, a school bus and an auto-rickshaw ferrying children to school as instances of deadly accidents that have taken place here. "For fifty years they have been promising us an overbridge but no government has built it," says Bhalla.

When Lal Babu Yadav, originally from Bihar, got a call on Friday evening at 7:45, telling him his sister's husband has had an accident while watching the Dusshera at dhobhi ghat, he rushed to get there on his scooter. "The level crossing was closed so I parked right there and jumped over the tracks to get to him," Yadav says. To expect him to have waited that day would be most unkind but he only illustrates the many ways in which people navigate Joda Phatak while trying to make their lives a little easier.

Satnam Singh, a middle aged driver in Judges Colony, is furious with the Railways and organisers of the Dusshera event. He believes, like almost everyone else here, that the Railways would have slowed its trains that evening-if only they knew of the event. "People," he says, "would then have dodged the slower trains (while enjoying the Dusshera celebration)."

Satnam left the Dusshera festivities unhurt. Also, he is getting how trains work wrong. Vivek Kumar, Divisional Railway Manager, Firozepur, says the Railways does not lower train speeds so that festivals can be enjoyed on the tracks. In fact, it is the other way around. "Our drivers are asked to ply at the highest permissible speed."

The high-speed Joda Phatak line is fit for up to 110 kmph. A train of the type that hit passengers would take 700 metres to stop after braking, Kumar says. This is why the railways have been insisting that the driver had no time to avert the mishap.

The Dusshera celebration also cannot be compared with rail roko or other protests that take place on railway lines because in those cases the railways have no choice but to halt services. "People are assuming that the guard at the Joda Phatak knew there was a crowd gathered at the tracks but he did not," says Kumar, the DRM.

The fact that this was a religious gathering has also piqued the interest of social scientists familiar with Amritsar. Harish Puri, who used to teach political science at the GTB University in the city says that the crowd was so large, so preoccupied with itself, that it probably developed a sense of impunity as well as immunity. "When you are in large numbers you can sometimes feel that no law operates but yours," he says. "Not just on Dusshera, many kinds of large crowds are doing as they please across India. The culture of impunity is growing."

Amrit Singh, station director, Railways, Amritsar, explains further that the railways manned crossings always have a gateman, responsible to secure the track for traffic, but not watch for people on them. "His work is too hectic, with filling registers and logging times and opening and closing the gates. A closed gate is meant to signify to the public whether it's safe to cross or they should use underpasses and overbridges," he says.

The crossing at Joda Phatak, 350 metres from the Dusshera event, is manned-by just one person per gate. "If these gatemen don't open and close gates on time, thousands of vehicles will collect and there will be chaos. That is why the gateman did not see the crowd gathering," Singh says. "At unmanned level crossings, I am not very clear, but it's the responsibility of the public to be safe. We have all been taught how to cross roads safely from childhood," he says.

This puts the Joda Phatak residents in a strange in-between zone. At a manned crossing, they must submit to the gateman's signals. At an unmanned crossing they must use caution and discretion. Everywhere else, the track is uncharted territory - where presumably discretion counts.

The question is, are people who live next to train lines reading the signals and symbols of the Railway network correctly? For example, Joda Phatak residents vehemently insist that trains in the past would slow down during Dusshera celebrations, except the one on Friday. Kumar says that people possibly saw trains slow down, but misunderstood why this was happening. "It was probably bunching that slowed down trains as they approached Joda Phatak," he says. Bunching is a process wherein trains are slowly lined up outside a station until a track is available. This had nothing to do with whether people are on the tracks or not.

Some at Joda Phatak also say that the driver was rushing because he was late. "The train arrived at Amritsar at around 7:00 PM, five minutes late," Kumar says. "You have been traveling on Indian Railways. Do you think a five-minute delay is going to make any driver panic."

That said, the Railways has also been insisting that there will be no inquiry into Friday's incident. "Railway inquiries are held when there is a violation of procedure by Railway staff. This was an extraneous event," says Amrit Singh. This may be technically true but the Railways are being heavily criticised for it. "Because so many people have died, the matter should not remain a mystery. There should be an inquiry by Railways, if not to pin blame then to give Railway authorities a lesson, so that on future they can work out some kind of norm and mechanism for these situations," says Puri.

Officials accept that every Railwayman is taught to take cognisance of safety and taught to look out for any incident that may cause a hazard. "This is the generic, macro training all Railwaymen are given because Railways handle lakhs of passengers and we are responsible for their safety," says Amrit Singh. Therefore, an alert guard or gateman could have averted the crisis-as could have the police, whose duty is to ensure safety of people. Even an alert member of the public could have sounded an alarm. But nobody did. Hence the question is not just who was responsible but also to what extent. "To file cases of trespassing-as the General Railway Police has done-against unnamed members of a gathering simply looks cruel," says Puri.

People of Joda Phatak are looking for catharsis after their tragedy. They need an outlet to shout, accuse and let out their anger. As Puri says: The government should provide space for such an outpouring and not let things fester.


Updated Date: Oct 22, 2018 13:09 PM

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