It is almost exactly 27 years ago that the football fraternity of the world was shocked into a standstill after 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England.
April 15, 1989, is one of the blackest days in the history of sports, a tragedy that left close to a 100 people dead and another nearly 800 injured.
Normally, its human nature to hide such tragedies, to ensure that these are not spoken of too often, and the wounds aren’t scraped raw again.
But Hillsborough needed to be revisited, as it was by the judicial system of England, to apportion blame and responsibility, which has now been put squarely on the police department and its senior officials.
While the details of the investigation and the verdict are unimportant, its time for us in India to visit our own stadia and see how they will pan out if we were faced with such a disaster, or any other.
One of the landmark days in Indian sports is February 7, 1998. This is the day when Anil Kumble captured all ten Pakistani wickets at the Feroz Shah Kotla in New Delhi, a feat achieved only once before in cricketing history.
Everyone remembers that, but few recall the earthquake that rumbled through the city shortly after the match.
Why yours truly remembers is simple – I was stuck on the top floor of the new media and VIP stand at the Kotla, with precious little chance of getting out. The feeling, to put it mildly, was disconcerting.
Now that we go back to the day, it dawns on us that if that quake had been more than a little quiver, we’d be writing epitaphs instead of eulogies.
Or rather, someone else would have been writing our epitaphs.
For there was no way on earth that we could have escaped that building in time, not with the kind of narrow escapes and badly placed signage, not to mention the inherent shakiness of the structure itself.
This however, is not limited to the Kotla. Nor are the disasters all natural.
The third match of the Asian Test Championship, played at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, was recipe for a disaster. After crowd trouble in the stands, which began with Sachin Tendulkar reportedly being blocked by Shoaib Akhtar and being run out, culminated in the then Calcutta Police and their West Bengal Police counterparts inflicting a brutal lathi-charge on the spectators and getting the entire stadium cleared by force.
While it did not result in a Hillsborough-like tragedy, it wasn’t because of any kidgloves that the police wore. The people there were plain lucky that there wasn’t a stampede.
One look at any of the stadia in India, and you’ll see where the problem lies. We as a nation don’t put too high a price on human life, be it on the roads, trains or public buildings and congregation areas, including places of religion and sport.
The number of instances of stampedes and ensuing fatalities at religious festivals has gone into many dozens over the years, but the fatalistic Indian grimaces for a short while, and then carries on.
At the stadia too, you can see how there are accidents waiting to happen. The exits to most in India, be they cricket stadia or football, or any other sport, are narrow and dark passages, completely bereft of ventilation, lighting or emergency equipment.
Then there are the rescue and relief personnel.
I have yet to see one stadium in India where the security personnel are doing what they are supposed to. Most of the time, our police personnel, after sending the paying public through four barriers of metal detectors and frisking, settle down to watch the game from choicest vantage points.
There are no emergency exit plans; no one is in charge of evacuation, or any real medical emergency equipment at hand. They do often have one fire tender and an ambulance. But on many occasions, the fire engine is used to water the ground and the ambulance was made compulsory after a footballer died during a match in Kolkata.
The spectators have nothing.
This is across the board – open air stadia and indoors. Most of these have a wire fencing running around, to prevent the overzealous from accosting the stars. But if there was a crisis, this fence would become a death trap, almost exactly like the fence in Hillsborough, against which many lives were crushed.
Watching any sporting event in India is always an adventure. From the purchase of tickets to the unending miles people have to walk to reach their gates, to the narrow serpentine queues through claustrophobic passages to reach their seats.
One only hopes this doesn’t explode into a disaster one of these days. Because, if it does, Hillsborough will become insignificant.