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Utkal Express derailment: Suresh Prabhu must act against Railways Board, punishing one member achieves little

Railways minister Suresh Prabhu has been furiously tweeting to let people know of his angst after the Utkal Express accident killed 24 passengers and maimed many. At the end of it, Prabbu performed the conscience-cleansing act of suspending some officials and sending a senior member of the Railway Board on leave.

We will not know if he was merely finding scapegoats, a ritual that follows every life-snuffing accident, but Prabhu knows for sure that the accident that happened last Saturday is not the last. Why Prabhu, not one of his predecessors could muster the courage to declare that they would try to make Indian Railways nearly-free of accidents.

File image of Suresh Prabhu. AFP

File image of Suresh Prabhu. AFP

Illustrious predecessors such as Lal Bahadur Shastri, Madhav Rao Scindia and Nitish Kumar resigned taking moral responsibility for loss of lives under their care, perhaps because that was easier than attempting anything as difficult as ridding the Indian Railways of avoidable accidents. They perhaps thought that discretion was the better part of valour. Prabhu has refused to be an escapist like them. He hasn't even pretended to take that route, and frankly, nobody expects rail ministers to do that anymore because resignations have obviously not solved the problem more than six decades after Shastri became the first rail minister to resign.

So, it's good to see that Prabhu has decided to stay even after accident number 27 under his charge. But the question that militates the mind is: does he have the stomach for a fight with the system he has been presiding over for more than two years? If he has, he will soon realise that he cannot be content with punishing a few officials or forcing a member of the railway board to go on leave. The problem is far bigger and it is located in the same premises, Rail Bhavan, where the minister operates out of. And that problem is the Railway Board.

Few know outside the government system that the Indian Railway’s bureaucracy, controlled by the highly insulated Railway Board, runs the most opaque system of governance. It does not allow any lateral entry of any outsider in the system. For instance, no other government officials or technical experts can find a place on the board unless they belong to the services. Apparently, the complex system of the railways is presented as the reason for not allowing outsiders who would be alien to its bureaucratic culture.

None of the railway ministers in the past, it seems, could dare reform this bureaucratic system that runs like a parallel government. The reasons for this hesitation are not far to seek. Being the largest employer among the public sector units, the railways has to contend with strong trade union leaders. George Fernandes and several other socialist leaders owe their political careers to the railways where their call for nationwide blockades was used to paralyse the country. Fernandes ran the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) that dominated the railways till the late nineties.

During the reign of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Nitish made half-hearted attempts to reform the railways by initiating privatisation, but could not take it to its logical end. In spite of knowing the fact that the Indian Railways bureaucracy had turned into the worst kind of a venal club of self-seeking individuals, his attempts at reform were too feeble to register any change.
Ministers like Mamata Banerjee and Lalu Prasad only aggravated the problem by introducing dubious practices within the system. The system became so rotten that a relative of union minister Pawan Kumar Bansal in the UPA regime was caught by the CBI selling reservation quotas to middlemen.

Ironically, the malaise that afflicts the railways is well-known. With Narendra Modi as the prime minister whose acquaintance with the railways is quite emotional and profound (recall his youth when he used to sell tea on trains), there was a certain degree of optimism that things would change. Modi bolstered this hope by talking about bullet trains and superfast trains that promise to radically alter the manner in which Indians travel. Three years down the line, with an "impressive" record of 27-odd railway accidents, hopes have given way to cynical despondency. Despite Modi’s war cry against the "chalta hai" attitude in the government, the Railway Board seem to have internalised the eternal principle of babudom: “Yeh to aise hi chalega (It will work like this only)".

In this context, it's not surprising that this government has also reconciled with the reality by sending one Railway Board member on leave for an act of criminal negligence for which the entire Railway Board needs to be shaken up. But that requires stronger and more stringent action over a long-term rather than tweeting out in angst.

Updated Date: Aug 21, 2017 18:45 PM

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