20 Years Since Gaisal: How Safe Are The Indian Railways?

August 2, 2019 marked the 20th anniversary of the Gaisal train accident which claimed the lives of 285 people involving Brahmaputra Mail and Awadh Assam Express and their respective loco pilots. It was termed as one of the most tragic train accidents in the history of the Indian railway; this preceded the Firozabad and Khanna Trains which made their way into the list of tragic train accidents, leaving a scar on the reputation of Indian Railways raising a question on the very safety of train operations.

The responsibility that the government entrusts the railways with begets the question of essential safety mechanisms well beyond the reach of the Indian railways in contemporary railway operations when India strives to attain its position among the developed high-speed rail networks while also revamping the core and non-core segments of its operations. The focal point of this argument pertains to understanding safety as perceived by the railways over the two decades since the Gaisal train accident took place, while one of the most important institutions of the railway operations: the Commissioner for Railway Safety functioning under the Ministry of Civil Aviation, defeats the very purpose of its establishment.

The Challenging Decades: 1980–2000

Over the past two decades, the Indian railways have undergone a massive transformation. The operational crisis of 1980 was a defining point in the history of Indian Railways. The then Railway Board chairman, M.S. Gujral, was the first General Manager to be directly appointed the railway board chairman. Some reforms helped the railway take its first step towards core modernization through the replacement of steam with diesel and electric power, which resulted in improved hauling capacity and gradually increased speed. The reform, however, compromised with a crucial aspect of railway operation on the safety front when train examination was recommended on a point to point basis rather than on an intermediate basis.

Further, the reformations in the signalling domain were prompt yet slow to evolve. At the time when the Gaisal train accident occurred, the railways were in their transformation phase, with multi-faceted projects taking place, with the quest for the uni-gauge system being at the forefront. The period from 1980 to 2000 saw a reduction in collision cases by 71%. The number of collisions reported decreased from 69 in the year 1980–81 to 20 in 2000–01.

The decades, however, saw three major train accidents involving six trains which occurred mostly in the highly saturated sections of the Indian Railways network. Train accidents include:

1. 1992: Gaisal train accident which involved Brahmaputra Mail and Awadh Assam Express

2. 1995: Firozabad train accident which involved Purushottam Express and Kalindi Express

3. 1999: Khanna train disaster which involved Golden Temple Mail and Sealdah-Jammu Tawi Express

Safety: A Luxury Or A Necessity?

The Indian Railways are a 165-year-old institution which has been slow to catch up with the needs of the global railway network—owing to excessive political and bureaucratic interference. Safety is one of the most underrated issues in the Indian railways’ operation which has been plagued by enormous under-investment and lack of strategic planning further complemented by lack of independent safety institution which would help improve the infrastructure and operation environment.

Over the years we have had committees, prominent among which are the Khakodkar Committee, Pitroda Committee and Khanna Committee recommendations. As we scan through the reports, the gravity of the situation we can find over the years when it comes to the safety of train operations has often been overlooked by the officials at the Ministry and the Board level. But safety is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

There is an equal need for autonomy and transparency, which has just been an ongoing dilemma in the last 20 years post the Gaisal tragedy. The absence of an apex safety authority at the national level very much inhibits the overall influence of the committees important for improvement in the infrastructural and operational health of the railways, which is due to overlapping reasons—either a paucity of rich experience or the orthodox approach to the railway management techniques. The function of the Commissioner for Railway Safety under Aviation Ministry is highly evident, since 1941. We, therefore, need to trace our steps back to the 1905 organizational structure for efficiency and safety, which is within our reach.

The Future Ahead

What we can infer from the Gaisal train accident is that the accident had, in fact, opened doors for infinite opportunities which have been missed by the railways. It is, therefore, time that the railways re-think safety as a necessity within which the constitution of an independent safety board for improved audit and pragmatic solutions for improved infrastructure and safety of train operations, can function.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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