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Manhole deaths: Civic bodies should be more responsible

Behind each of these tragic deaths is a tale of callous indifference exhibited by the municipal authorities to the safety of the citizens and to the duty of care entrusted to them.

columns Updated: Sep 03, 2017 23:33 IST
Pushpa Girimaji
Pushpa Girimaji
Pushpa Girimaji
manhole deaths,civic bodies
Behind each of these tragic deaths is a tale of callous indifference exhibited by the municipal authorities to the safety of the citizens and to the duty of care entrusted to them.

Open manholes killed 167 persons and injured five in 2015. Uncovered, unprotected ‘trenches, ‘nallas ‘ and pits took an even heavier toll--as many as 730 fell into them during the year. While 663 died, 65 suffered injuries. In the previous year, 195 persons died by falling into open manholes, while 780 died on account of accidental fall into open pits, says National Crime Records Bureau data.

Behind each of these tragic deaths is a tale of callous indifference exhibited by the municipal authorities to the safety of the citizens and to the duty of care entrusted to them. If only these authorities had done their job and closed the death traps on roads and pavements, so many lives would not have ended. The death of a gastroenterologist from Bombay Hospital, who fell into an open manhole while wading through knee-deep water during the torrential rain in Mumbai , is yet another reminder of the gross negligence of civic authorities.

Ironically, the local bodies are only too well aware of the consequences of their dereliction of duty. Yet, they fail to take certain simple measures such as closing manholes and other death traps or barricading them. Why? The answer lies in their lack of accountability, absence of safety consciousness and sheer insensitivity to human tragedy. Last year, when the Delhi High court was hearing compensation petitions filed by five families that had lost their dear ones to an open manhole and an unprotected canal (Gandha nallah) , the authorities were squabbling over who was responsible. While the Public Works Department said the fault lay with the Delhi Jal Board, the latter said the former should have informed it about the open manhole on its site. The Delhi High Court said in disgust: “… a statutory body does not have to be informed of its duty; it was an obligation on the part of the statutory body to perform its duties…” (Urmila Devi Vs MCD , decided in November 2016))

As in many such cases, in this case too, the court held the civic authorities guilty of negligence and awarded compensation to the families but that is not enough. Like the Supreme court said in Lucknow Development Authority Vs MK Gupta, in 1993, the compensation paid to the victims in cases like these, should be recovered from those who are actually responsible for the tragedy, on account of their failure to perform their statutory function. This should become the norm in every such case.

In addition, those responsible for failing to cover and barricade manholes and pits, should be held criminally liable under the Indian Penal code for causing death by negligence .(Also , the punishment provided under Section 304 A –causing death by negligence- must be enhanced from the present two years) In the absence of such accountability, we will not see an end to avoidable tragedies caused by the negligence of the civic authorities. In fact it’s time municipal laws had an in-built clause to hold those guilty of gross negligence and dereliction of duty, criminally accountable.

Every civic authority should invite complaints of open trenches, manholes and loose electrical wires from the citizens through WhatsApp messages. They should constitute citizens committees to report on any open manhole, trench or pit that posed a threat to the safety of the citizens. There should be a clear time frame within which such complaints should be attended to, and the information provided on the website . Those who fail to comply should invite severe penalty, including demotion. Without such stringent measures, the lives of citizens will continue to be at risk.

First Published: Sep 03, 2017 23:33 IST