The Indian Railways Doesn’t Need More Funds, It Needs More Attention

Not long ago, we hailed Mr Suresh Prabhu as the most tech savvy and active Railway Minister we have ever had. To an extent this is true since the service delivery system during his tenure has touched great heights, be it with regards to cleanliness, food quality or safety, you were just a tweet away from him.

I can say this with surety because I once tweeted about the cockroaches and rats that were making my travel a nightmare. I was replied to within two hours, and the cleanliness staff came in with all the pest repellent/control tools. Though I still had to sleep with those rats/cockroaches nearby, what made me happy was the promptness and the responsibility the Ministry took in solving the issue.

Such pro-activeness in service delivery is a rare chapter in the political history of Indian Railways.

Like every coin has a flip side, the Railway Ministry too fallacies that we fail to condemn since we are not the aggrieved party. Every year, we witness dozens of stories about railway accidents/derailments/fires-with lives lost, people injured, routes hauled, politicians scanning the situation from the sky, investigation teams formulated, etc.

Out of all of this, the only thing that remains constant is the frequency of such disasters that are mostly man-made. A majority of these disasters occur due to factors like the negligence of the driver, the signalman’s error, mechanical failure of rolling stock/track/bridges, vandalism by people, sabotage and terrorism, carriage of dangerous/hazardous goods, the ineffectiveness of brakes and inadequacy of the operating rules.

This year has been special because of the recurrence of such disasters in a particular state-Uttar Pradesh. We have already witnessed six train accidents this year, out of which four of them occurred in the state.

Such recurrence in a particular state expresses the saddening state of Indian Railways, particularly on the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar route. One reason for this can be lack of defined authority-responsibility relationship within the government institutions that necessitates periodic security checks. The other reason is the failure of the internal audit mechanism.

A highlighting feature of the most cases of train accidents this year is the word ‘derailment’. Derailment occurs when a train runs off its rails. Causes of derailment can be-collision with another object, operational error, mechanical failure of tracks (broken rails), mechanical failure of wheels, etc. None of the cases, can’t be fixed with regular examination and security checks. Hence, the major cause of such incidents turns out to be pure negligence.

A proof of negligence is the telephonic conversation between a railway employee and the gateman, presented by the Times of India pertaining to the Utkal Express derailment. The gateman informed that a part of the track was being fixed and welding work was due. Also, the work was going on without any block on the route. When the train passed, track’s part was in place but was not welded causing the derailment.

Though, the authenticity of such claims can’t be relied on. But, even if it is 20% correct, we are witnessing the epitome of human errors and lack of responsibility. If a man recruited by the government’s detailed/stringent process (even the lowest order of government jobs necessitates a written examination and training) performs their task with such laxity, then how on earth are we civilians going to trust the government and its agencies?

The government’s role here should be to review such incidents, figure out the cause, pool in investments, and make the administration work even on their days off so that the people can trust the institutions. But, this is what you expect out of a government that truly cares for its citizens. Our government is rather interested in doubling its vote banks and tripling its account balances. The Ministers will come up with ways with which it can gather sympathy votes :

  •  Compensations of lakhs to the family of the dead, a lesser amount to those injured: The injured ones are satisfied that they are alive and the family of the dead are in a state of shock and are too weak (emotionally/financially) to question the government. The rest of us are too busy with our lives that nothing bothers us until it touches us/our family.
  • Sudden incorporation of investigation teams/committees and task force: These committees will present their report in a month or two and will conclude by supporting the government, declaring none of the employees/ministers guilty of any charge. Sometimes they even turn the facts around and present it as a terrorist attack.
  • At last, when every strategy fails to clear off the image of the government, the ministers bring in their trump card-“I offer to resign”statement. I wonder why they just offer to leave? Why don’t they just resign? Also, if they truly are taking the moral responsibility of the accidents, they should be answerable to the victims/public instead of avoiding any media briefings. Instead of undertaking any stringent actions against the employees responsible, these employees are sent on forced leave (not suspension). These actions are obvious since it is the moral responsibility of the political masters to protect their political trainees.

Mr Suresh Prabhu in last year’s budget came up with a new way to seek attention, through the new ‘Railway Suraksha Kosh’. The fund was proposed with a corpus of ₹1 lakh crores to accomplish the ‘zero accident mission’, of the government. This fund was to be used for replacement of electrical assets, improvement of the signalling system, and upgrading the rolling stock.

Today, the government isn’t even sure about the sources that will fund this project. While delivering last year’s Railway budget, Mr Prabhu was applauded for acting on the issue of Railway accidents/derailments on a priority basis. A year later, the situation is still grim, unchanging or even worse.

The population of India is expanding and we will take over China in a few decades. But, that doesn’t mean that should let our people die over petty issues like lack of oxygen supplies, over beef consumption or because government servants are too lazy to check if the railway tracks are in place and functional!

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