Train accidents: Govt says no to creating new post of Member (Safety) in Railway Board
Holding Railway Board chairman or a member solely responsible for accidents due to operational reasons is not right in every instance
New Delhi: The Railway Board, the premier decision making body of the country’s largest transporter, comprises a chairman and members for five different functions - Traffic, Traction, Rolling Stock, Engineering and Staff. In the hierarchy of the Indian Railways, the Board is right after the Railway Minister and his Ministers of State. It is interesting to note that though several critical Railway functions are headed by Members, there is no position for Member (Safety). Does that sound like a harmless omission or does it smack of a cavalier attitude, given the horrific accidents which are occurring on the Indian railways network lately?
Well, the government says neither is there such a post in the Board nor is there a proposal to create such a post afresh. In its replies to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Safety and Security in the Railways, the Ministry of Railways has stated: “Safety is integral to the construction, certification, operation and maintenance of Railway System. Each Member (of the board) is responsible for the respective part pertaining to the department viz.: infrastructure, rolling stock, signaling and operations. Overall co-ordination is done by Member (Traffic), Railway Board. Hence, the question of a separate Member for Safety is not pertinent.” The standing committee released its action taken report on 3 August.
The intransigence of the Railways ministry in creating a new safety post in the Railway Board comes even as it has already begun a major shakeup of the board. Chairman A K Mittal was asked to quit earlier this week and his successor, former CMD of Air India Ashwani Lohani, has already been named. At least one board member and several other senior officials have been suspended following the deadly Kalinga Utkal Express derailment last week which snuffed out over 20 lives while injuring scores of others. Another mishap, again in Uttar Pradesh, on 23 August, injured several others. This is when Minister Suresh Prabhu has offered to quit too. His resignation has not been accepted till now though there are indications that he would be replaced in the impending Cabinet reshuffle.
It is pertinent to note here that with 238 fatalities in 2016-17, the number of people who lost their lives almost doubled in one year though the total number of accidents was down marginally. Between April and July 15 this year, another 13 people had lost their lives in four more accidents at unmanned level crossings of the Railways. The two accidents within a span of five days, both in Uttar Pradesh, have brought the spotlight back on the patchy safety record of the Railways.
So who should shoulder the blame for safety lapses? The Railway Board, the minister or both? Below the hallowed Railway Board lie over 60 divisions of the Railways. One senior ex-official described these divisions as the basic units of function. Each division is under a Divisional Railway Manager (JS grade). He said 3-4 divisions combine to make a a zone and each zone headed by a general manager of the rank of an additional secretary. Holding Railway Board chairman or a member solely responsible for accidents due to operational reasons is not right in every instance because the chairman and/or the member may not be directly involved in day to day operations. Direct involvement is at the divisional level - DRM (divisional railway manager), this person said. So was Mittal made the scapegoat for someone else’s lapse?
The parliamentary panel mentioned earlier is headed by TMC’s Sudip Bandopadhyaya and had earlier too expressed its reservations on the existing system in Indian Railways for providing safety in the backdrop of inter-department difficulties. It again said that Member (Traffic) is anyway fully engrossed with the running of trains through the entire Railway network in India and the related works on a daily basis. “A separate Member for ‘Safety’ would be able to exclusively focus on the Safety issues of Railways. The Committee reiterates its earlier recommendation”.
The parliamentary panel has observed that adherence to safety is at present a multi-disciplinary effort in the Indian Railways. Each department defines its own safety parameters for assets installed/used and monitors/maintains the parameters in the safety limits which are codified manuals and are maintained as per laid down protocol. Each department lays emphasis and keeps the concern of their own department a priority without realizing that the needs could be more significant on other sides.
The Panel thought that safety should be dealt with in a prompt, precise and diligent manner and preferably be a separate department as inter disciplinary methods of dealing with this aspect at micro level only serves to reduce its efficiency, resulting in delayed response and compromises on safety. The Committee, therefore, also recommended that the current structure of Railway Board as well at the Zonal and Divisional levels should be reviewed and the safety infrastructure of the Railways should be recast to the extent that it includes at least a separate or a full-fledged department solely entrusted with providing safety and security across its area of jurisdiction.