The Indian Railways is one of the biggest public sector undertakings in the country. Since its advent in April 1853, when the first train ran between Mumbai and Thane, it has come a long way/covered a great distance indeed. It is the fourth largest in terms of length and second largest when it comes to carrying passengers. Crores/millions of Indians commute through it daily, both for jobs as well as long distances/long distance journeys across the length and breadth of the nation. With manpower of about/around 12 lakh employees, Indian Railways is a force to reckon with. While these numbers might sound daunting, there is another dimension of Indian Railways that poses a glaring problem for the government. Railways in India have the highest number of casualties in the world and it also suffers from a chronic problem of delays. This year’s budget was remarkable since it was the first time ever that the Rail Budget has been/was subsumed with the General Budget. Which laid stress on/urged the need to focus on railway safety with just a sum of Rs.1,00,000 crores in its pocket. Rashtriya Rail Suraksha Kosh (RRSK) to be created for a term of 5 years. But the entire rhetoric about rail safety just did not prove to 3suffice. Last one year has seen a large number of rail accidents with an average of around 200 people losing their lives and 1000 people getting injured in the mishaps. The twin accidents in/that took place recently in August within the span of four days have reinvigorated the debate concerning Railway Security. It has bluntly exposed the ‘Chalta Hai’ attitude of the railways, particularly when it comes to the passenger’s safety. While the problems of regular delays, overcrowded trains, poor sanitation, corruption in railways and unprofessional staff might be forsaken /taken for granted by the people, the spree of train accidents has highlighted to change this dilapidated/paralytic organizational setup for the safety of the common man.
Accidents in Railways- Harsh Reality
The Indian Railways is the lifeline of a nation which provides or has a potential to provide mass-transit to the large segment of the working people at exceptionally affordable rates. The trains also serve as the only long-distance transportation medium for scores of skilled and semi-skilled workers who migrate from their native places in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh to the peninsular states namely Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana and Kerala with a hope for a brighter future. This movement of workers is vital for economic development of the hinterland as well as the peninsular states and also the metropolitan cities which need working population/workforce to sustain high/optimum growth rates. The railways also carry thousands of tonnes of coal, raw iron and other freight items across the nation. The bane of accidents has been a curse of the colonial past for the organization. Those were the times of British colonialism, the railways for the first time were laid across the length of the nation with an objective of plundering the natural resources and subjugating the native population. In addition to this, it also served as a medium of rapid movement of the army, natural resources, and raw materials to be sourced out of the country through the ports. However, No attention was paid towards the development of the trains, the only lifeline for the native people. Eventually, the entire responsibility of the same rested on the Indian Government when the nation attained independence in 1947. The government with all of its resources extended the railway network throughout the nation, but the focus still was nowhere in the vicinity of rail safety.
Indian has been witnessing a large number of the train accidents every year in spite of hollow promises by the ministers regarding the improvement of the situation. Last one year has seen to record the highest number of accidents throughout the decade. The growing number of accidents has seriously dented/caused a grievous wound to the reputation of the Modi government which always used to boast about good governance. The casual attitude of the railways is primarily responsible for the growing number of accidents. The entire focus has been on announcing newer trains in poll-bound states to woo voters/appeal voters and to the contrary, the safety aspect is a neglected one. It is pertinent to note that about 75% of the rail accidents that took place this year have occurred in the form of/due to the derailment of either a locomotive or some bogies. The old infrastructure is highly stressed/retard and therefore, needs a herculean effort for the improvement.
Reasons for Accidents
The increasing number of the rail accidents is mainly due to out-dated/obsolete machinery and indifferent attitude/ ‘Chalta Hai’ Attitude towards the safety of the people. The main issues with Indian Railways have been quite clearly illustrated by the Rakesh Mohan Committee Report of 2002. It states that the “railways have fallen into a vicious cycle of underinvestment, misallocation of scarce resources, increasing indebtedness, poor customer service and rapidly deteriorating economics”.[ Gist of Rakesh Mohan Committee Report on Transport Development Policy, Press Information Bureau, Government of India] The statement brings out the grim situation of the railways which needs a clear emphasis upon the safety of the passengers. The recent Utkal express mishap has refreshed the memories of the Indore-Patna Express disaster that took place in November 2016. Around 150 innocent lives were lost. The fact that the fares have not been hiked since the last decade in spite the fact that the railways have been registering millions and millions of losses every year, this pity situation points out towards the prevalence of the vote banks politics which always supersedes over the need for safety measures. The poor tracks and absence of Link-Hoffman –Bosch coaches which are considered as standard locomotives in most of the developed nations for last five years, have collectively added to the death toll. The casual attitude of the staff and the lack of accountability have also been the prime contributors to a dramatic rise in rail disasters.
The height of the callousness is revealed by fact that the August mishap of train derailment occurred when the track was under certain repair procedures, but the rail staff apparently didn’t care/bothered to stop the incoming train even when the tracks were loosely connected. The railway authorities sacked a number of high-ranking officials including a member of the railway board, but the fact that it is rather a temporary satisfaction and not a permanent solution. Another dimension to the problem is that a majority of the accidents have occurred in U.P.-Bihar-Jharkhand-M.P. belt which is considered to be very busy when it comes to train traffic and involves large transit of the people. Therefore, due to lack of time and heavy traffic, it becomes very difficult to maintain these tracks.
Reforms to Reduce Accidents
There have been a number of Committees set up by the Union government over the years to study the problem of rail accidents and poor infrastructure. The recommendations by most of the committees pertain to/have emphasized upon the privatization of the railways. This suggestion was first mulled by the Rakesh Mohan Committee Report of 2002 which advocated the corporatization of the Indian Railways. But the reforms have not been received by the government in good light. The Modi Government called for the Anil Kakodkar Committee which is considered to be a high-level Safety Committee, so as to increase the safety of the passengers. It quiet efficiently pointed out certain issues, the lack of empowerment and neglect of maintenance as the main reasons for the accidents. It mooted the idea of the reformation of the role of Railway Board and revamping the infrastructure. It also proposed the idea of Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO) of railways to be deputed, with the objective of improving the safety by utilization of emerging technologies. The most of the recommendations of the committee were accepted by the government with General Budget 2017-18 proposing the replacement of ICF coaches with LHB ones in coming five years. New Metro Rail Policy and accrual-based financial accounting system are also said to have been included in the list of reforms. While cleanliness and sanitation received the required impetus in the form of ‘Clean My Coach’ App, ‘Coach Mitra’ and bio-toilets from 2019, albeit, the safety features are still a far cry from.
The government is pondering over the option of opening up the railways for private participation, but the said move needs a cautious approach. Another Committee headed by NITI Ayog member Bibek Debroy, which was formed with an intention to look into the matter of ‘Mobilisation of Resources for Major Railway projects and Reinstructing of Railway Board’. The committee suggested/urged the need of an independent regulator in the Indian Railways and also focusing on core activities while outsourcing the non-core functions like education, catering, etc. It has pointed out that the delay in the railway projects has led to the escalation of several costs and loss of millions of rupees of the public money. The government is also increasing the /reach/proximity of the Indian Railways at a robust rate along with the electrification of the large portion of the tracks. The need of this hour is that all the proposed reforms must be accompanied by safety measures in order to instill the confidence of the public in this system.
Bullet Trains- Case of Misplaced Priorities
The Indian government is trying to bring into India the phenomenon of the bullet train with cutting-edge technology and breathtaking speeds. The inauguration of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed corridor which is due to take place in the coming month of September this year is known to be built at the whopping cost of about ₹ 1lakh crores with the assistance of Japan. The train will cover a distance of 508 kilometers in about 2 hours and 8 minutes, with the top speed being 350 km/hr. While it might be a cherry on the cake for the ‘New India’ and be a boastful achievement for the Modi Government, it sounds quite ironic that we are mulling for bullet trains for the ultra-rich class of people while a majority of the population still travels in trains with poor safety features. Another dimension to the problem the problem is the clash of the conflicting ‘ideas of development’. The replacement of all the coaches of the Indian Railways from ICF to LHB will take years and years to come and also millions and millions of rupees as well. The railways till now has been able to replace the coaches of only Shatabdi and Rajdhani trains, but the sleeper coaches of large distances trains which are highly/more prone to accidents are yet to be replaced. It is heartening to see that on one hand the death of about 30 people in the USA due to Hurricane Harvey receives global attention, on the other hand in India where more than 400 people have died in Bihar floods this year, but the Indian government is still unmoved. Is the death of the poor and common man a mere statistics for the government to distribute compensation and an opportunity for the officers to appropriate public money? We must have the sensitivity towards the value of human lives and must try to look into the directions of railway safety so as to reduce the number of rail accidents. The prospects of bullet train are fascinating, but the government must tread sincerely as well as carefully on the ‘Mission Zero’ to reduce the accidents in the railways.
The problem of increasing numbers of accidents in railways has rightfully received the media attention with the former railway Minister, Suresh Prabhu offering his resignation in the moral responsibility. The recent cabinet reshuffle has resulted in the command of the department in the hands of Piyush Goyal. While the change of the minister is a welcome step, but it would in addition also take a herculean effort to improve the ailing system. The attitude of the officials must be changed and accountability of the accidents must be fixed with stringent penalties. India must first learn the art of rail safety from Japan which has the impeccable record of zero casualties in rail accidents since 1964 and still counting. If the government is able to realize the gravity of the situation and is able to invest seriously in safety on the war footing, it could certainly help in reducing the number of accidents and make the Indian Railways safer and passenger friendly than ever.