December 12, 2019
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Morbidity Junction

Its killer precision makes the Calcutta metro a lure for suicides

Morbidity Junction
Swapan Nayak
Morbidity Junction
Until recently, Calcutta's underground railway provided the swiftest passage from here to there, anywhere in the city. With time, the Metro Railway acquired an added dimension not envisaged by its authorities: some locals now perceive it as the quickest way from here to the hereafter. A slew of recent suicides (and attempts) has affected running schedules and the authorities are yet to devise an adequate response.

Between 1988 (when the first suicide occurred) and this year, 79 persons have tried to kill themselves by throwing themselves on the live high-volt third track that runs the length of the 16-km-long tunnel. This works out to an average of six attempts a year. The body count so far: 33 and still rising. Authorities prosecute survivors but that is not enough to prevent Calcutta's pride from becoming people's favourite death row.

What adds to the concern is that the virus is catching. The last two months saw six attempts. And the deadly traffic is growing by leaps and bounds—last fiscal saw nine, and in 2001-2002 it touched 20. Apart from the negative image it conjures up for the city's fastest, cleanest transport system, the after-effects can be shattering. Says P.K. Chatterjee, Metro Railway's chief operations manager: "The tracks have to be cleared, the body removed. Survivors have to be sent to hospital and the police informed. Worse, our services go haywire. Tense rush-hour passengers become furious and roundly abuse the victims (Why the hell the ******s choose this station" is a common refrain). The average delay is around 90 minutes. And the underground is all about minutes and seconds with a punctuality record of 99.4 per cent. It is no consolation to reflect that such hazards could well be the price of development—the tube all over the world acts like a magnet for potential suicides.

Metro authorities have come up with some curious findings about the suicides, which apparently follow a pattern. Two stations, Belgachia and Rabindra Sarobar, account for the bulk of the incidents, but this does not reveal very much. Belgachia in east Calcutta, spokesmen point out, is close to slums and is economically backward, but then what about Sarobar in the southern part of the city, where jilted lovers often kill themselves? The last case at Sarobar on March 15, involving a 30-year-old unidentified male, did not significantly add to the knowledge pool. More revealing is the age profile of the victims. Relatively mature people seem more prone to suicides. There have been only nine persons trying to kill themselves below 20, 28 people in the 20-30 age group, 26 people in the 30-50 bracket and 16 over 50.

Ultimately, Metro's fatal attraction among would-be self-killers could well be its operational efficiency. The victims clearly believe that if they manage to touch the live track, their woes would be over and the pain involved would be a small price to pay. Psychiatrists feel part of the explanation could well lie in the general social background. With Bengal now topping the list of suicide-prone states in the country, displacing Kerala, the metro suicides could only be an index of a general pattern of morbidity.

Clearly, routine formulations will not help in understanding what makes suicides choose the Calcutta underground. There has to be deeper analysis. "Unfortunately, after the body is removed, after examination by a railway-appointed doctor, there is little follow-up. Once the police take over prosecution proceedings again, there is not much anyone else can do," admits a railway spokesman. Interestingly, there were no incidents between 1984, when the trains started running, and 1988.

Above all, it is not the kind of work railway authorities are known or required to handle. Which is not to suggest that they have been sitting on their hands even as people have been leaping into the tunnel.They have tried to play soft music to soothe frayed nerves. They have made appeals in the media. They have engaged ngos to help in counselling. But counsel whom? Therein lies the rub. "Someone buys a ticket, waits among other passengers and in a split second, takes the plunge. How do you identify him or her?" asks Chatterjee. Problem indeed. Now the authorities are thinking of using close-circuit cameras more effectively, to spot errant behaviour. In the meantime, one should not be put off by the overall stats. Remember, for every two attempts a month, some 2,00,000 people use the tube daily.

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