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|September 12, 2002|
The Rediff Special/Tara Shankar Sahay
Fifty-five years after Independence, the awe inspired by India's massive railway infrastructure has given way to despondency and despair.
There are good reasons for that.
The accident involving the Howrah-New Delhi Rajdhani Express at Rafiganj, near Gaya, in Bihar on September 9 has only reactivated the alarm. The mishap -- which Railways Minister Nitish Kumar claims is an act of sabotage by Maoist rebels; others charge the railways with negligence -- has so far claimed 125 lives.
The message is loud and clear: horrific accidents are just waiting to happen should the present apathy persist.
Railway ministry statistics reveal a sad story: over 7,500 kilometres of tracks are afflicted with metal fatigue and need urgent replacement.
Further, Minister of State for Railways Bangaru Dattatreya admits that out of the thousands of railway bridges in the country, an alarming 526 are 'distressed,' a euphemism for weak and ageing bridges.
The Justice H R Khanna Committee report, submitted in 1998, categorically stated that its most significant recommendation 'would be for Indian railways to rigorously monitor the implementation of its safety items already languishing at various stages of consideration and execution.'
But given the fact that the rate of one major accident taking place every years is undiminished, it would appear the inquiry reports and their recommendations are consigned to limbo with little follow-up action taken. Post-Independence, four high-level committees were constituted to scrutinise various facets of the Indian Railways. The Kunzru Committee in 1962, the Wanchoo Committee in 1968, the Sikri Committee in 1978, and the Khanna Committee in 1998. All emphasized the need for safety.
It has been argued that in a sub-continental country as large as India with its widespread railway infrastructure (the second largest in the world), certain accidents are unavoidable. But much accidents have their origins in negligence or human failure. The most common type of railway accidents in India, as this list reveals, are at manned level crossings, caused by not stopping road vehicles from moving across the tracks when trains are rushing across; derailment, caused by weak and ill-maintained tracks; and collisions between two trains, caused either by human or signal failure (the latter a manifestation of non-maintenance).
Dattatreya does not say what the government plans to do about the 526 railway bridges declared as 'distressed' or why governments over the years, and of different political shades have been unwilling to act on railway safety committee reports.
Speaking after Monday's accident, Dattatreya said his ministry had devised a three-pronged approach to prevent further accidents. 'Instructions have been issued for engine drivers to reduce speed as they approach old bridges; measures have been taken to strengthen the bridges; and lastly, we have resorted to special patrolling,' he said.
There are 125,000 bridges and culverts all over the country but no railway minister has ever clarified what the overall survey has indicated or how many kilometres of tracks need to be replaced.
"The general tendency (of railway ministers) is that the railway ministry should flourish only when they are in charge. They couldn't care less what happens when they are out," a senior railway ministry official said.
He points to the case of former railway minister Ram Vilas Paswan attributing the Rajdhani accident to governmental apathy, rather than sabotage.
"An accident occurred when Paswan was railway minister (when the Ahmedabad-Howrah Express plunged into a river at Bilaspur, Madhya Pradesh). He did not want to take the rap and said it occurred because of sabotage. But now that he is in the Opposition, he wants everybody to believe the sabotage theory is bunkum and the government should be blamed for the Rajdhani accident," the official added.
Offering proof for its sabotage theory, the ministry pointed to the fact that the bolts of the fishplates were found neatly arranged besides the tracks, close to where the accident occurred. However, Opposition parties smell a rat in the story, and ask if any saboteur would spend time arranging the bolts so neatly near the tracks as a telltale sign.
The political dimensions are the fact that the accident occurred in Bihar, which is ruled by Rabri Devi of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Railway Minister Nitish Kumar is a leading political figure in Bihar, and his Samata Party is in the Opposition in the state assembly.
An inquiry has been ordered into the mishap.
Tragically, the government-Opposition battles immediately after a train accident merely raise political temperatures but do little to eliminate the lingering spectre of further disasters waiting to happen.
Mystery shrouds the activities of the Prime Minister's Special Railway Safety Fund, which has a budget of Rs 170 billion spread over five years.
Soon after the Rajdhani accident, Dattatreya took pains to explain that while Rs 120 billion would come from the prime minister, his ministry would provide the remaining Rs 50 billion. "I reject any charges that we are not making efforts to upgrade the safety measures for the passengers and the railway," he contends.
Ultimately, it is the traveler who pays the heaviest price. "Almost every year the passenger has to pay increased fares and freight charges. Why should he face death and destruction because of an indifferent railway ministry?" asked Sudha Gahlot, a bank executive.
"Even if 20 per cent of railway committees' recommendations over the last two decades were implemented in letter and spirit, it would be much safer to travel by the railways," she added.
The question is: when will that happen?
Design: Uday Kuckian
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