As we celebrate Independence Day, remember Kailash Chand Maurya. Just as Delhi was trying to find answers to why it was so heartless to have left a man to die on a busy road, the 50-year-old suffered a heart attack on Saturday morning but couldn’t make it to the hospital — barely a 15-minute drive otherwise — because a part of the Capital was shut down for the security drill.
For Delhi, there couldn’t have been a more unfortunate start to the festive weekend.
Protecting the Capital on national days when India’s top leaders and foreign dignitaries attend public events is one of the biggest challenges for the Delhi Police. In a city that has seen political assassinations and an attack on Parliament, concerns about VIP security are not unjustified. So the security agencies frequently shut down arterial roads, buildings, offices, shops, even roadside shacks for long hours.
For Independence Day, traffic is blocked in a large part of the walled city, on the Ring Road and a bridge across the Yamuna. For the Republic Day, the ordeal starts a week ahead of 26 January when India Gate is sealed off for full rehearsals. Any public event attended by VIPs attracts similar blockades. Even routine VIP movements can create a mess. Each time a motorcade passes by, traffic lights are switched off and commuters are made to wait. It gets worse when Delhi hosts international dignitaries.
The Saturday incident was not the first such tragedy in Delhi. Last year, unable to reach the hospital due to restrictions for India-Africa summit, a woman delivered her baby in an auto-rickshaw. In 2010, an east Delhi resident died on the way to a hospital because the ambulance carrying him was caught in a jam caused by the PM’s motorcade. Few remember Martin Massey who was beaten up for straying onto a VIP route in 1995.
Preventing people from commuting violates the right to liberty and the right to free movement — Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution — argued Supreme Court lawyer Harish Salve in a letter to the police commissioner in 2012. “The city is wracked by unbearable pollution as it is. The conduct of the force in blocking traffic is grossly adding to this pollution,” he said. Soon, a parliamentary panel asked Delhi Police to streamline traffic, recommending predetermined routes for VIP movements and use of FM radio and electronic display boards to warn people about diversions.
To be fair, the police do announce traffic advisories in newspapers and the social media, if they have information in advance. But managing the outermost ring of VIP security, they are usually the last to be told about such movements. While there is no excuse for refusing access in an emergency, cops alone cannot be held responsible for all they do is follow the Blue Book and orders. The onus lies with our political leadership.
As the shadow of terror extends globally, security overdrive has become an international phenomenon. While no state can afford to take chances with VIP security, this deepening culture of fear undermines the very idea of democratic freedom that the global community is struggling to uphold in these troubled times.
Physical security measures are as important as credible intelligence inputs. But that calls for more investment in building secure infrastructure instead of relying on stock archaic measures such as blocking busy arterial roads. Beyond the occasional tragedies, just think about the routine loss of man-hours.
Across the world, VIPs are taking to the skies to free up city roads. The government should consider setting up helipads wherever possible to cut down road travel by VIPs. For example, one at Rajghat — a must on every VIP itinerary — would be a wise investment. Likewise, building venues complete with helipads outside the Capital for hosting international summits can safely ferry VIPs without bringing the city to a standstill.
More than ever before, today democratic rights come at a steep price and every citizen must shoulder her burden of inconvenience. But no security imperative can justify a medically unattended death, or childbirth, on the Capital’s road in twenty-first century India.
We can do better. Happy 70th Independence Day!