Crowded house

Updated on Apr 24, 2004 01:25 PM IST

The recent tragedy in Lucknow where 22 women lost their lives should remind us of the hazards of collecting huge crowds in restricted spaces, writes Khushwant Singh in With malice towards one and all.

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PTI | ByWith malice towards one and all... | Khushwant Singh

The recent tragedy in Lucknow where 22 women lost their lives and many others were injured in a stampede during the birthday celebrations of the PM’s  election agent Lalji Tandon should remind us of the hazards of collecting huge crowds in restricted spaces. Those organising such events should always bear in mind that gathering crowds could be an invitation to disaster. We should have learnt this lesson long ago as there’s hardly an event where a large crowd has not taken its toll on human lives.

The two principal culprits responsible for these tragedies are preachers of antiquated religious traditions and politicians. It is at religious celebrations, particularly at pilgrimages, and during processions and political rallies that huge crowds collect. No matter how many precautions are taken, accidents are bound to occur. We saw this earlier this year when, despite elaborate arrangements, scores of hajis lost their lives in a stampede in Mecca. Haj takes place only once every year. Hindus have many more pilgrimage centres along ‘sacred’ rivers than Buddhists, Christians or Muslims. As a confirmed agnostic, I am free to question the rationale behind the belief that a dip in a river or a tank, however sacred, at a particular hour determined by the constellation of stars washes away sins or earns merit of any kind. And it is at Kumbh Melas, where thousands of Nagas and sadhus who never do a stroke of work and display themselves to collect offerings , that nasty accidents take place.

Since many people have vested interests in these gatherings and our political leaders lack the nerve to say anything that may be construed as anti-religious, it is up to the media to warn people about the futility of indulging in massive snaans — community bathing. An equally dangerous practice is taking out huge processions and organising mammoth rallies. Here, the chief culprits are politicians. They blow up crores of rupees to get people together to hear them. No proper arrangements are made for their seating; the slightest disturbance can snowball into a stampede. Other danger spots are cinemas, railway stations. No proper arrangements are made for the old. We are too many and must evolve our own codes of conduct to meet such contingencies.

Fruits of success

Parveen Talha, director-general of the National Academy of Customs, Excise and Narcotics, Faridabad, is due to retire in a couple of months. She’s the senior-most Muslim woman in the service. Most probably, she will return to Lucknow where she was born and has her own home. More important is the fact that after her younger brother, Osama,  died, she set up a charitable trust in his memory to help impoverished families educate their children.

I have known Parveen for over 20 years and happily involved myself in the Osama Trust. It took me to Lucknow twice. I noticed that despite her seniority in a department notorious for rampant corruption, she toed the honest path of rectitude and was a living exemplar for her colleagues. Her lifestyle was spartan: despite being head of customs, she refused to get me one bottle of drinkable Scotch. Though deprived of my sundowner, I returned to my hotel full of admiration for her.

Her last posting as head of training customs personnel was not regarded as a prized post. In two years, she made it one. Besides imparting the usual training in customs, excise and narcotics, she introduced training in environmental crimes. These consist of the use of ozone-depleting substances like gases used for refrigeration, air-conditioning and aerosols. They are no longer used in developed countries and are dumped on the lesser developed.

Talha signed an MoU with the UN Environment Programme and now the institute provides training to customs officers of all countries of the Pacific region on how to identify and monitor the smuggling of ozone-depleting substances. Her efforts in this direction have been acclaimed by the UN Environment Programme. The World Customs Organisation (WCO) has chosen her institute as a regional training centre.

Talha’s NACEN in Faridabad doesn’t look like a government set-up. It stands in an expanse of lush green lawns, has an auditorium, an amphitheatre, library, classrooms, a hostel and an open-air pool. All she has to do before she retires is to plant a few saplings of chausa and ratol mango trees from her orchard in Lucknow so that in years to come their fruit will remind coming generations what the first lady director-general did for them.


In April and May, till the beginning of June

Hema Malini will dance at any tune

She might climb a tree or hang by a wire

Or swallow fire

If such be the script.

Swaying his bat at pussy cat

Sidhu will twist his tongue and swell

one lung

To let out a barrage of words

Each falling like a fateful hit.

It is only fit that Bhupen Hazarika and

Bappy Lahiri

Their boats in the tuneful waters ferry

And make merry

Dilip Kumar and Sunil Dutt are of the fashion old

And Shabana perhaps a little bored,

And ideas and ideology a thing of the past,

So the field is free

For Moon Moon Sen and Yukta Mookhey

Politics may, after all, be not the last resort of a scoundrel

And fame the infirmity of a noble mind

But power and money are certainly the weakness of mankind.

(Contributed by Kuldip Salil, Delhi)

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