Citizens' Issues
Public Interest Exclusive
Indian Railways: Death Trap

Is railway safety ignored because it is a middle-class issue?

On 22nd May, 24 people were killed and 35 injured at dawn when the Hampi Express collided with a stationary goods train in Andhra Pradesh. This is after two railway accidents on one day (20th March) had killed 15 people at Hatras (when the Mathura-Kasganj Express rammed into a van at an unmanned crossing) and, separately, the Aishbagh-Pilibhit passenger train rammed into a truck injuring several people.

The media dutifully reported the accidents but it was a one-day flash and a few tired editorials; no real outrage. We, the people, seem to have become deadened to the sickening loss of over 1,000 lives to railway accidents every year.

Why is the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which otherwise takes pride in its bleeding-heart subsidies that are bankrupting the exchequer, so unconcerned about railway safety? Isn’t the aam admi worst affected by the fact that railway safety is in a shambles and every safe journey is a miracle? This isn’t an exaggeration. It is first-hand feedback from former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi. It is not a case of sour grapes either, because Mr Trivedi raised the safety alarm well before he went on to present a path-breaking Railway Budget in March that cost him his job.

After the Kalka derailment in 2011, Mr Trivedi told the Lok Sabha: “My focus will be safety, safety, safety.” He announced plans to set up an independent railway safety authority, based on the recommendations of a high level safety review committee headed by Anil Kakodkar, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. This plan was unceremoniously discarded after a budget that caused Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee to demand Mr Trivedi’s resignation.

The Congress and prime minister Manmohan Singh buckled under pressure; but don’t they owe us, the ordinary railway travellers, an explanation for why the safety plan has been jettisoned? As Mr Trivedi says, “Remember, the rich travel by air and by car. It is the common man who dies in railway accidents. How many ministers or members of parliament (MPs) travel by train? Not even the railway minister. It is a cruel joke.” The 65,500 kilometres Indian railway network, carries over 21 million passengers everyday—isn’t the government answerable to these people?

We have to turn to Mr Trivedi again for some blunt speak. Calling the Indian railway operations ‘a death trap’ he says, “Anything can happen to any train, as safety is nobody’s concern. If you recall, I had mentioned (at a Moneylife Foundation seminar) that I would be concerned to travel by night train. During my time, messages of extra alert were sent to all.” Indeed, soon after he resigned as railway minister, Mr Trivedi had told us how he would worry every time the phone rang at night, wondering if it would bring news of yet another accident. That is the extent to which the maintenance and safety systems have been eroded because of losses and mismanagement.

Let’s look at what has been scrapped with the Anil Kakodkar committee’s recommendations. The committee flagged poor safety standards and practices of the railways as the reason for the alarming increase in accidents over the past few years. It said that the Railways would need to spend at least Rs1 trillion over the next five years to ensure the safe running of trains through drastic technical and technological improvements, upgrading of safety and maintenance infrastructure and elimination of unmanned railway crossings, installing advanced signalling and train protection warning systems as well as new LHB (Linke Hofmann Busch) design coaches. Earlier this month, the comptroller & auditor general (CAG) confirmed the Kakodkar committee’s findings in its indictment of the railways for its financial mess, the massive 93% erosion of accumulated funds and the gross underutilisation of Rail Safety Fund (RSF) indicating a low priority being accorded to safety works.

What a long way downhill we have come from the time when Lal Bahadur Shastri had resigned owning responsibility for a railway accident! On
22 May 2012, the killer accident of the Hampi Express didn’t even evoke a token demand for the railway minister Mukul Roy’s resignation. This too is not surprising, given how outrageous Roy’s brief stint was as minister of state for railways in 2011. I think a recap of Mamata Banerjee and Mukul Roy’s tenure is in order, given the Trinamool Party’s even more strident claims of concern for aam admi.

Mamata Banerjee, as the railway minister, brazened her way past a dozen accidents from 2009 to May 2011, when she quit, to become chief minister of West Bengal. While 2009 saw two accidents, there were seven in 2010. In these, 15 died in three accidents in Uttar Pradesh (UP) in the January fog. In May, 148 were killed in the Jyaneshwari Express derailment in West Bengal; 60 died in July (Uttarbanga Express rammed into the Vananchal Express); four in August (Faizabad); and 15 in September (goods train hit Gwalior Intercity Express in Madhya Pradesh). The year 2011 saw another six accidents. There were no casualties in the first two (a derailment at Ghaziabad in January and Rajdhani Express fire at Ratlam in April); 30 died in the train-bus collision in Uttar Pradesh (July 2011), 70 died in Kalka Mail derailment near Fatehpur (July 2011), and three were killed in the Guwahati-Puri Express derailment (July 2011).

The three events of July are crucial. After Mamata Banerjee returned to Kolkata as chief minister, the ministry was handed over to Mukul Roy, her chosen successor, but as a minister of state. The horrific Kalka Mail accident happened immediately thereafter and Mr Roy famously refused to visit Fatehpur. He had the temerity to tell a TV channel, “I am over 1,000km from the spot of mishap, if there is a necessity, I will visit the site. I am the minister of state not the railways minister. I will go to the spot if the PM tells me to do so.” When the Guwahati-Puri Express derailed soon after, Mr Roy did it again. He ignored the PM’s instructions to visit the accident site and instead sought a report from the railway’s general manager.

We learn that it is this that led to Dinesh Trivedi’s appointment as railway minister, but he was sacked for doing what was right—trying to make the railways safer and spending on infrastructure and modernisation by raising passenger fares after nine years. Haven’t the prime minister and the Congress Party betrayed the people by allowing Mukul Roy to return almost as though the ministry has been given away as a jagir to the Trinamool Congress? And isn’t the entire political class a party to this betrayal by acquiescing in this situation?

One reason for this could be that railway safety is seen as a middle-class issue that does not affect their core vote banks. The aam admi that politicians pay lip service to, is too poor even to travel. So it is up to us, the people, to raise our voice against misgovernance and ensure that the Indian Railways don’t go the Air India way.

User

COMMENTS

M G WARRIER

5 years ago

Preventive maintenance and post-accident rehabilitation/compensation(read adequate compensation) are totally neglected areas in India especially when it comes to infrastructure and services used by aam admi and when people involved are not from the high net-worth category.
Government and public sector organizations are attracting avoidable criticism by ignoring the need for:
• Timely replacement of obsolete or defunct equipments,
• Ongoing preventive maintenance,
• Ensuring competent skilled staff in position and
• Concurrent ‘audit’ of accounting and performance in service establishments.
Many who die or get injured while traveling by rail or road(including pedestrians) even go unidentified. Carrying an identity proof should be made mandatory for using rail and road travel facilities.

Nagesh Kini

5 years ago

Well done Sucheta,
If at all anyone is responsible for making our railways the blame lies with only Mamta, who has thrown passenger safety to the winds.
What is the point in having an atomic scientist to suggest and throw the report.
That we have a series of accidents from the north, south and east, only the west has not yet seen any so far, God forbid.
High time the PM asserts himself and takes over Railway portfolio that stands messed up by the likes of Laloo and Mamta.
Enough is enough.
One more accident demand for the head of the RM but also the entire UPA2 for gross failure of safety standards.

malq

5 years ago

Thank you, and the need for safety can not be emphasised more, especially as "statutory enquires" have become shams and jokes. Held in-house, increasingly without public participation or providing access to electronic recording by media, these are delayed for years - the final report on the Sainthia disaster of July 2010, for example, is still awaited.

rgds/VM

Fire in Jet Airways plane; passengers safe

The Jet Airways plane was on the taxiway when the follow up vehicle saw a fire in the left engine of the aircraft

Mumbai: About 158 passengers on board Jet Airways Riyadh-Mumbai flight on Monday escaped unhurt after a fire broke out in the left engine of the aircraft on its landing at Mumbai, reports PTI.

The incident took place when the flight arrived around 5.40AM, airport sources said.

The Jet plane was on the taxiway when the follow me up vehicle saw a fire in the left engine of the aircraft.The pilot was told to hold and shut the engine, they said.

"However, the fire was immediately put out and all the passengers were deplaned safely," they added.

In a statement, Jet Airways said the flight 9W523 (Riyadh-Mumbai) was advised by the ATC to return to base as there was slight visibility of smoke from the engine as also observed by the cockpit crew.

"As per standard operating procedures, one engine was shut down and passengers were deplaned safely. The flight operation was stopped for about ten minutes," the statement added.

 

User

Mobile tower radiation, chemicals held for sparrow disappearance

Electro-magnetic radiation from mobile towers, use of leaded petrol in vehicles and overuse of chemicals and pesticides in agriculture have been cited as causes for disappearance of sparrows

Golaghat (Assam): Sparrows are disappearing from many parts of the country, and especially in Assam where electro-magnetic radiation from communication towers, use of leaded petrol in vehicles and overuse of chemicals and pesticides in agriculture have been cited as causes by scientists, reports PTI.

The chief scientist of the Regional Agriculture Research Centre in Lakhimpur, Dr Prabal Saikia, said, ''It is a fact that sparrows are becoming scarce throughout Assam - both house and tree sparrows."

Saikia said his research on house sparrows conducted in Guwahati and Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, Sonitpur, Jorhat and Tinsukia districts revealed that they had been sighted in greater number in the Dikhowmukh area of Upper Assam along the banks of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries in Dikhow and Mitong.

''Comparatively less pollution, large number of thatched huts and general awareness about environment protection are responsible for the concentration of sparrows at Dikhowmukh," Saikia pointed out.

Environmental activist Hiren Dutta of conservation organisation "Nature's Beckon" while conducting a survey in greater Dikhowmukh found that a group of sparrows had set up a colony in the verandah of a house at Krisnasiga village.

Dutta has noted that in five nests eight couples of sparrows have been living happily despite the fact that there is a mobile tower in the vicinity.

He said studies and surveys of sparrows were still continuing in the state and hence the number of sparrows in in Assam could not be ascertained.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests had set up a committee headed by the director of the Bombay Natural History Society, Dr Asad Rahmani, to study the possible impact of ''radiation from communication towers on wildlife, birds and bees''.

According to the report submitted by the committee, the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from mobile towers was responsible for the decreasing number of sparrows and bees.

Referring to a study conducted by Punjab University, the committee cited an instance in which 50 foetuses were spoilt within 5.30 minutes when exposed to EMR. Apart from that, the sparrows affected by the radiation lose procreative power and sense of direction.

 

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COMMENTS

SANarayan

5 years ago

While a lot is being written about disappearance of sparrows, I would like to mention that around my house in Seawoods-Nerul(west) area, many sparrows come and perch on my terrace garden and on the gulmohar tree at the entrance of my building. They build nests sometimes inside my verandah between pipelines and the wall. Crows build nests in the many badam trees in our area and pigeons have a field day in laying eggs in potted plants in the flower beds of many flats. Koels sing in the mornings and some birds with colorful wings hop around the plants in our building compound. In our area many buildings sport mobile towers and our own building has a Tata teleservice tower for internet. How well corelated are these studies linking radiation effects to disappearance of sparrows in some areas or are they mere conjectures?

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