The tragic Patna-Indore Express accident near Kanpur, killing over 140 people and injuring another 200, has been blamed on a "rail fracture" – a structural malfunctioning of the track due to repeated expansion and contraction because of change in season.
Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu didn't mention 'rail fracture' in his statement following the accident, but by the time he spoke in Parliament on Monday, the term had already been picked up and repeated several times and was almost taken as the officially stated reason behind the accident.
Though nature does play a hand in weakening the structural integrity of railway tracks, it cannot rupture a gap in the track of the magnitude that caused the accident on Sunday. If that were the case then we would have heard of a multitude of rail accidents all over the world in every winter and summer season change, and high speed bullet trains would not run in China, Japan and other developed countries.
The apparent cause of the accident, as of now, is a routine mechanical fault; the gravity of which was compounded by the lackadaisical "chalta hai" approach of railway officers and staff. The accident was not caused due to human failure, nor was it a result of sabotage, at least there is no such indication so far.
That firmly rests the blame solely on the mechanical or maintenance division of the Indian Railways. The railways' brass and lesser mortals thus can't shift the blame on the paucity of funds and policy issues on safety, even though augmentation and policy implementation of safety remains a major concern. But blaming the accident on a broader safety issue defeats the purpose with respect to the present tragedy.
"There shall be a separate comprehensive investigation aided by latest technical and forensic analysis by an appropriate agency to look into all possible angles. Strictest possible action would be taken against the guilty," Prabhu said.
One would have to see what kind of action the railway minister is willing to take in the days to come. Will the heads of those who matter roll or will class II and III employees bear the brunt? Demands are being made for Prabhu's resignation on moral grounds; as had happened in 1999, when the then Railway Minister Nitish Kumar had resigned after the Gaisal train tragedy that killed 290 people and when Lal Bahadur Shastri had resigned in 1956, following the Ariyalur train accident that had killed 142 persons.
As history would suggest, both Kumar and Shastri – who had resigned taking moral responsibility over a train accident – only rose higher in the ranks. Shastri went to become the home and external affairs minister and then eventually the prime minister, whereas Kumar became the rail minister again, and then held other Union ministries as well before becoming the Bihar chief minister.
The rail minister's resignation after such tragedy, thus, is not a worthwhile solution. In fact, apart from proving a rhetorical point, a minister's resignation means nothing, unless one wants to secure Prabhu's future for greater glory. The railway board chairman, its members, general managers, divisional railway managers, the chief engineers and so on, are never made to stand in the firing line.
For them, the business continues as usual. It is high time that they, and not the ordinary mortals in the ministry, must be held accountable for their shortcomings and should lose their high paying job and its perks in the event of a mishap.
Prabhu may have run a successful 'PR campaign' through his twitter feed – by providing milk to babies and other such comforts to some passengers – but the present tragedy is a far serious and more pertinent issue. The stories emerging from the accident spot near Kanpur, describing tales of the victims' suffering, are both touching and highly disturbing. It's time that the railway minister stands up and takes responsibility, even if it does not translate into his resignation but sets into motion a plan to fix the safety problems for now and forever – be it human, mechanical or technical.
Then there is the other aspect of the mismanagement problems in the railways: Blaming everything on fund and logistical shortages. Now that reports have emerged suggesting how the demonetisation move will help fill the government's coffers in the long run, this time worn excuse should finally be put to rest. Prabhu and his men have to perform with substance, and not get carried away through sponsored or social media accolades.
Just see what the Railway Ministry had say to the Parliament two days before the horrific accident. An official statement issued by PIB on the basis of a written reply given by Minister of State in Railway Rajen Gohain to the Rajya Sabha on 18 November said: "Track renewal is an ongoing process which is undertaken as and when a stretch of track becomes due for renewal on age-cum-condition basis. Track renewal works are planned in advance every year and their execution is prioritised according to the condition of track and overall availability of funds ensuring all the time that the track is in a sound condition for the safe running of trains,"
"In case, if any stretch of track is not renewed in time due to various reasons including scarcity of funds, material etc, suitable speed restrictions are imposed to ensure the safe running of trains. As on 31 March, 2016, track renewal covering 5,900 km have been sanctioned, out of which 2,668 km is targeted for the year 2016-17. As per norms, track renewal works are to be completed within two to three years of sanction. This, however, also depends on budget availability," the statement said.
In response to another query on safety, the minister goes on to say that: "The Ministry of Railways has requested the Ministry of Finance to sanction a non-lapsable Rastriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) totalling Rs 1,19,183 crore, out of which Rs 1,11,683 crore is to be funded by the Ministry of Finance for safety improvement of the Indian Railways. The safety related works identified are related to track works, bridge rehabilitation, safety works at level crossing, replacement and improvement of signalling system, improvement and upgradation of rolling stock, replacement of electrical assets and human resource development with approximate fund requirement."
The rider about "budget/fund availability" is cleverly placed in every sentence of the statement. Now that the Finance and Rail Budget is to be unified, and presented by the finance minister, hopefully no such excuses can be expected again.
Prabhu was handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi from outside of the existing talent pool in the ruling BJP to head the railways, with the aim to modernise it. Railways has always held a prime slot in Modi's plan of modernising and developing India. But the Patna-Indore Express train tragedy is a grim reminder that words are no horses and mere dreams are no reality.