Lessons from the Hotel Savera New Year incident

I was disturbed to hear from a friend, that two of the victims of the Hotel Savera stage collapse, M.Anand and Ramya did not even intend to attend a New Year Eve party, but sheer circumstances and the encouragement of some friends led them to that venue.

I am deliberately not stating all the circumstances, because that information should not be misused by the hotel in any way in the legal proceedings.

The newspaper reports on the incredibly sad deaths are here and here.

This is a difficult moment for everyone, when young people have died in a senseless incident that can be attributed only to our grossly defective systems and procedures. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who have died and those who have been injured.

To dismiss the stage collapse as a mere accident, as even some newspapers have inadvertantly done, would be an exercise in self-delusion. It is something that should provoke a deep anger in all of us, at the establishment which arrogates to itself the right to police us, tax us without accountability and finally, fails to own up when things go wrong.

I would think that this sombre moment should prompt the very visible community of young upwardly mobile professionals to consider whether they are sufficiently involved in reversing the decay of our system. Today, the bulk of our economic prosperity is due to the efforts of these professionals. But as the Savera incident has demonstrated, we simply don’t have the systems and procedures to sustain such an explosion of activity in a sustainable manner.

Let us face the fact. Our governments are corrupt, our police is repressive and corrupt, and very disturbingly, our conscience keepers in the media are superficial at best and at their worst, hopelessly ignorant. I leave it to your judgment whether our judiciary inspires confidence at all levels, the subordinate judiciary in particular.

So what can individuals do in such a difficult period in our history, when protections are at their least, torts are unheard of and a creaking judiciary is unwilling to make an example of the rotten section of our politicians, administrators and business class?

I would submit that closer involvement and engagement with the system and not less is the answer. If more questions are asked, there will be fewer attempts to cheat the system.

My plea is that if we can persuade, through whatever means at our command, including litigation, to compel the government departments such as the PWD, the Fire Service, the Chennai Corporation, the TNEB and the Police, to affix the names of their inspecting officers, and for the stability and other certificates they issue to be displayed prominently at the premises and on the Internet, it would make some officials accountable.

A few years ago, a young woman working in the US Consulate at Gemini died, because she tried to avoid a lot of gravel piled on the roadside off Kodambakkam High Road near Palmgrove, skidded and was run over by a bus following close behind. I had asked the then Joint Commissioner of Police, GUG Sastry, why the Police could not file a case under Section 304 (A) [causing death by a rash or negligent act] against those who had piled the gravel — in this case, the Chennai Corporation field staff?

Mr. Sastry issued a warning that the Police could indeed do that and The Hindu carried that report (a related story is here). But little has changed in Chennai vis-a-vis public safety and the role of Government. What one Commissioner or Joint Commissioner of Police says, his successors ignore or forget. Other departments such as the PWD, TNEB and Fire Service are not even visible, although they keep signing certificates for various businesses.

Democracy is not easy to work as a system, and as the well-worn adage goes, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. In our case, of safety as well, because we have a hopelessly corrupt system. Let us resolve to keep this system on its toes so that more young people like Sumit Agnihotri, Anand and Ramya don’t die in senseless incidents such as the Hotel Savera stage collapse.

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