Presenting the 2013-14 Indian Railways budget, minister Pawan Kumar Bansal made a point: he would strive towards a zero-accident situation.
Moments after the budget was read, CNN-IBN started its next bulletin with the opening ‘breaking news’. A mob of agitated locals burnt down a station, Gulabgunj, in Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha region after a train mowed down two children crossing the tracks.
This irony should not be missed. It has grave import for the public since the Indian Railways talk about safety but do not give a damn.
Did it amount to negligence on safety issues, which is phenomenal on the Indian tracks, or an accident? Whichever it is, it did not reflect well on the system that admittedly transports the largest number of passengers on any given day.
During the five years till 2011, over 1,200 persons were killed in train mishaps including accidents at unmanned level crossings which in itself accounted for 717 fatalities. No small numbers, those.
Of the huge number of deaths, a committee on rail safety headed by Dr Anil Kakodkar has noted, 40 percent were on the tracks on which local commuter trains run. Between 2002 and 2011 nearly 40,000 died on them. Some slipped off the trains and were crushed. That is the “insufficiency of services” the panel referred to.
Here is a revealing quote from that report: “"Reluctance of the Indian Railways to own up to the casualties, which do not fall under the purview of accidents, but are nevertheless accidents on account of trains, can by no means be ignored. No civilised society can accept such a massacre on its railway system."
That committee had described the 15,000 deaths per year as a ‘massacre’ by the rail transport system. And for good measure, it added that “no civilised society” could accept it.
Why do they occur?
"Trespassing (on tracks) occurs because of lack of barricading, fencing, lack of adequate number of pedestrian overbridges and lack of facilities such as sufficient number of platforms, escalators, elevators for the disabled apart from insufficient train services. These are the main reasons for the heavy human death toll."
Insufficient train services in a country where every year every railway minister presumed worth his salt announces new train services? In a country with burgeoning population, at last count 1.2 billion and growing, there just are not enough tracks, nor enough coaches, and not even enough trains to make travel possible, leave alone safe travel.
And when introduced, the infrastructure did not match the volume of travel. This mismatch clearly ensures that an accident-free or death-free day is only a miracle.
So frequent are the railway accidents that Dinesh Trivedi, during his short-lived stewarding of the ministry focused on railway safety – also, it should be pointed out, as an intent – was fearful of the telephone ringing in the night. Would that be a call from the Railway Board informing him of another accident? That showed lack of confidence in the system or its full understanding.
Nearly 36,700 rail bridges on Indian Railway system are more than a century old but the Indian Railways, via a press note by the Press Information Bureau in 2009 said that these are, “safe for train operations.” But yes, there are “distressed bridges” which are “rehabilitated/rebuilt/strengthened”. But that same year South Central Railway Zone had said more than half the bridges in the zone, being over 100 years old, were “unsafe”.
These apart, there are over 13,500 unmanned railway crossings which means a train can trundle along the tracks and a passenger or a vehicle, due to foolishness or sheer risk-taking abandon get into a disaster. They are being gradually closed and overbridges were being built the pace is so slow to be of any significance at all.
And today, Bansal said he would be happy to work with state governments to build badly needed foot overbridges – their congestion, often because of the human load and the constriction because of hawkers – which was an admission of lack of resources. These overbridges at stations are grossly inadequate and people cross the tracks pinning their hope on their luck.
In Gulabganj, the railway station is without a foot over bridge which forces the people to cross the tracks, notably, to reach the station.
According to information given to TOI by SCR officials, there are 13,705 bridges of all types in the zone, of which a whopping 4,457 are over 100 years old. Out of the total bridges, 1,347 are major, 12,327 minor and 31 important bridges.
Last May, Sucheta Dalal had asked in Moneylife: Why is it that a government which “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.”
She also had an explanation I would agree with: “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.”