Expect the unexpected

Expect the unexpected

Expect The Unexpected. The Beas tragedy resulted in many knee jerk reactions including the one that speculated on complete ban of educational tours in schools and colleges. However no journey is entirely safe.

The Beas tragedy resulted in many knee jerk reactions including the one that speculated on complete ban of educational tours in schools and colleges. However no journey is entirely safe. Every system is likely to have a malfunction. Every rescue team may be too far away. Every corner may have a lurking monster. So, how does one handle life without getting confined to home?

It was the kind of incident that sends shockwaves across the country. The kind of mishap that sends college managements into jitters, teachers into panic reactions and tour operators into alarm. It was the kind of a tragedy that has fathers cringing, mothers rushing to hug their kids and students into frightened introspection. The Himachal Pradesh tragedy left the nation shaken with the footage of college students getting inexorably washed away by the gushing waters of the river going viral. The episode served to bring home many truths. The many gaps in our system, right from mechanisms to prevent such calamities to systems that bring closure to an incident, have been exposed. A plethora of inquiries revealed what went wrong where. Recommendations have been made to put in place safeguards where water recreation happens. The college has been chided for slipping in the provision of complete safety to its students. Officials have been rapped. Governments have been criticised. For sure, an accident like this will never happen again at Mandi, in the river Beas. But, are we sure such a disaster won’t happen elsewhere ever again?

“That’s the thought that bothers parents now,” says Anasuya Mitra (name changed), parent of a student who missed the Vignan Jyothi college tour for not making payment on time. “I shudder to think what would have happened if my son went on that tour. He is quite the adventurous sort and I am sure he would have been standing on those boulders too. Don’t know if we will ever have the courage to send him again on any tour without our presence.” She may not have to be so scared of the prospect anyway as the Telangana Government, which fixed the blame on the College for many lapses, is also considering a complete ban on industrial, educational tours by engineering colleges.

But such knee-jerk reactions would mean missing the woods for the trees, say experts. “There is a scientific purpose behind why we have educational tours. There is always an element of risk in everything we do. Drastic actions based on a disproportionate assessment of risk will cause greater damage,” says Dr W G Prasanna Kumar, Director, National Green Corps and a senior social scientist. Dr Prasanna Kumar who regularly deals with designing and organising nature camps for groups of children says those outings are essential for the all-round learning for children. Naga Praveen Pingali, Assistant Professor, Sri Venkateswara College for Architecture, Hyderabad, who leads students of architecture on field trips, emphasises the need to ‘introduce to students the tour itinerary and its schedule as much as a geographical,cultural programme, as a time management exercise.” Controlling youngsters ‘from concrete jungles’ in a place with hills, water and trees is certainly a challenge, he says, and advises that smaller groups with a higher student-teacher ratio will make for a safer option.

But it just isn’t college tours that have the potential to become disasters. It could be any group, travelling anywhere. Family picnics, kindergarten zoo outings, friends on a road trip, colleagues on a business tour or even strangers on a bus could find themselves in a nightmarish situation. “Storms, earthquakes, food poisoning, drowning, road accidents, falls, hits and even getting looted – the possibilities of what could happen to you when you are travelling are infinite and horrendous if you pause to think of it,” says Sushant Dongre, an IT professional. He recalls the time he and his friends were on a road trip in Assam and were looted at gunpoint. “My friend and I were beaten up and left to bleed with the tyres of our car punctured. We could have died but for one of us who has had some first aid experience and keeping us afloat until we could find help.”

So every journey is fraught with danger. Every system is likely to have a malfunction. Every rescue team may be too far away. Every corner may have a lurking monster. So how does one handle life without getting confined to home? “The problem with us is we swing between extremes. Either we are paranoid about the risks or we are plain reckless,” says Dr Prasanna Kumar. “For example, when I read about deaths due to sunstroke in this time and age, I am astonished. Summer is not something unexpected. Why can’t we take simple precautions that are universally advised and prevent something so simple?” he asks.

When group tours are planned, there are some rules that organisers should follow. There are internationally acknowledged strict guidelines that should be followed and practice of those instructions can reduce risk almost totally, he says.

He describes a training programme where clear and unequivocal guidelines to follow in forests, mountains and areas with water. “It is a certified programme that organisers of tours are made to undergo. And we learned about first aid in times of accident, handling a stroke patient, dealing with fractures, rescuing someone who is drowning, the protocols of communication, who to inform and when…It has been a comprehensive programme.”

This works in an organised set up with trained team leaders accompanying groups. What does one do when the tour is run by a small tour operator?

“Travellers invariably ask for a deviation in a tour plan. You take them to a mountain, they would want to go trekking on an uncharted course. Take them to water, they want to swim. Tell them it’s a non-stop commute, they will want you to stop. And, of course, they want to be left alone when they are shopping. And every deviation means that risk increases multi-fold for us,” says the Chief Executive Officer of an IATA travel agency in Hyderabad. He acknowledges that while they operate as per strict guidelines, it may be difficult for smaller operators to either have trained personnel or back-up mechanisms when there is a crisis. “Often, they do not even have a licence to run tours, especially in popular tourist destinations,” he says.

Which is why it is important to have operators with risk management plans in place, says Praveen Pingali. “One overall manager and a resident operator who knows the local area are crucial. We should also make the students aware of each place they would be visiting with strict do’s and don’ts reinforced each morning.”

“The college should also have a meeting with the parents before the tour and keep them informed every day of the conditions once the tour begins. We need to know that the college has a foolproof plan. After all, it is the lives of our kids at stake,” says Anasuya. However, all this post-facto analysis comes to nothing, declares a State Government senior official, who has a rather cynical view of the way disasters are dealt with. A retired bureaucrat, K R Rao says: “I have personally seen so many enquiries being conducted on mishaps and innumerable reports submitted. All very keen, useful documents but it is rare that their recommendations are implemented. And we have a very similar accident happening again even before the ink on this report is dry,” he says dismissively.

“What is quite common in developed countries is what we universally lack here,” explains Dr Prasanna Kumar. “In Japan, every kid is taught in a simulated environment how to get out safely when there is an earthquake. In Europe, tour operators refuse to even start the bus until everyone is safely buckled up. In fact, why does the air hostess come and check every seat to ensure that every passenger has the seat belt fastened? It is the practice of a necessary safety protocol.”

Risk preparedness should be an integral part of our thinking. There has to be a ‘culture of safety’. Children should be taught the benefit of following the rules, he says.

It’s not about fixing blame. It’s not about pointing fingers or even just about prosecuting the wrongdoers after each accident. It is about timely and effective interventions. About foolproof, strong support mechanisms. It is about strict enforcement of rules and protocols; about extensive training for everyone in facing an emergency situation. It is about a safer environment. It is about saving lives. And ensuring that there is no replay of a tragedy like that of Himachal.

Accidents happen in spite of all we do. The line between safety and calamity is impossibly thin. Survival is in knowing how to stay on this side of the line. Always!

Lessons to stay alert, stay alive

1. Make proper plans. Do your homework about the place before you book.

2. If it is an adventurous trip you are planning, check out the nearby support systems. Mark the nearest police station, hospital, habitation, Government agencies in your map.

3. Leave contact numbers of those places with someone back home.

4. Try to have a local contact wherever possible.

5. Find out the track record of the tour operator.

6. Do not eat anything you don’t recognise or cooked in unhygienic conditions.

7. Do not take children and elderly to hazardous places.

8. Avoid caves, tunnels etc if you are claustrophobic. Do not force or push people in the group to do what they are not comfortable with.

9. Get proper travel insurance before you leave,

10. Do not attempt new things that seem exciting but may be dangerous if you are not trained or fit. Like skiing, bungee jumping or climbing.

11. Do not deviate from plan. If you have to, first do a check.

12. Losing money is not as bad as losing a life. Do not hesitate to do what is needed at times of crisis even if it involves some cost.

13. Follow all basic safety rules. Both written and orally issued by the organiser as we all as what common sense dictates.

14. Remember adventure does not mean tumbling into a disaster and fun is not the same as foolishness. Have control.

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