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India’s train tragedies are derailing lives, economics and common sense

Daily O
By Professor  

After the derailment of the Kalinga Utkal Express, on Saturday, August 20, 2017, the Ministry of Railways has come under an onslaught of questions and accusations, and quite understandably so.

Most recently, it has been the Congress spokesperson, Manish Tewari, boldly declaring the lack of even an "iota of morality" in the NDA-led government. Tewari has called Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governance model a miscellany of "event management and managing news cycles".

Twenty-three lives were lost, 153 passengers injured and 26 left in grievous conditions, after the derailment in Khatauli, Muzaffarnagar. Worse still, about 300 lives have been lost in 27 accidents in the past three years. Allegedly, there have been nearly 350 railway accidents during the tenure of the present railways minister, Suresh Prabhu.

Pizza over passenger security

A spectre is haunting the Indian Railways - the spectre of elite aspirations. After assuming office in 2015, Prabhu introduced pizza-on-demand and regional food services on select routes. This was then welcomed as a disruption in the erstwhile tradition of lacklustre railway services. Passengers today are quick to condemn the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), for instance, without quite understanding its economics.

 

The IRCTC is actually a subsidiary of the Ministry of Railways, and works through private participation - but is not a private entity. Even the magazine of the Indian Railways, Rail Bandhu, is not an in-production, but is published by the Maxposure Media Group Ltd. Yet, both of these services function almost without any accountability.

Tewari has accused the ministry of prioritising pizza over passenger-security. Elsewhere, the Anil Kakodkar Committee Report on Railway Safety (2012) has been quoted to tailor the current trends of railway debates - the facts that the railways are understaffed, and must immediately fill in vacancies, apart from creating a special corpus of Rs 1 lakh crore, for safety and infrastructural development.

But it is extremely crucial to also read the reasons behind the state the Indian Railways has found itself in the past decade or so. Inter alia, the report stated: "the 'present environment of Indian Railways reveals a grim picture of inadequate performance' largely due to poor infrastructure and resources… [t]he financial state of Indian Railways is 'at the brink of collapse' unless some concrete measures are taken. Passenger fares have not been increased in the last decade and the infrastructure is severely strained… This has led to a neglect of infrastructure maintenance."

The high-level infrastructural, organisational and administrative changes recommended by the report were taken forward by the Bibek Debroy Committee Interim Report for Mobilization of Resources for the Railways (2015).

Besides restructuring of zones and delinking of non-core activities such as schools and hospitals, and accounting reforms, the committee made three very serious recommendations. One was the formation of an independent body, the Railway Regulatory Authority of India (RRAI), which was taken up last year by the government, and the reform operationalised in April, 2017.

Another was the sharing of the subsidy burden and operating losses between the states and the Centre - in a bid to promote cooperative federalism in the railways. Out of 29 states, only nine have signed joint ventures with the Centre. Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Tripura, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Assam are the conscientious outliers - any damages or casualties upon the tracks in their territories must ideally weigh heavily upon their conscience.

Finally, the committee recommended encouraging the entry of private players. Public outrage against the privatisation of the railways, and political pressure, derailed this recommendation, even at the cost of forgetting the fact that the India Railways incur losses of $6 billion each year - largely on short commuter hauls - and its railway subsidy ranks the fifth in the world, only behind countries that have much more efficient and profitable railways: China, United States, Germany and Italy.

In late April, 2017, Prabhu announced that the railways shall not be privatised - except the auctioning of 23 railway stations.

Two of the three recommendations of the Debroy Committee - which would have been instrumental in operationalising the Kakodkar Committee recommendations in the first place - have bitten the dust. Instead, the Indian Railways has diverted its attention to promoting luxury transport in the form of Tejas and Humsafar Express, new militarily strategic railway networks such as the Bilaspur-Leh railways, and the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Hugh Speer Railway Network. Arguably, it is to suit the sociocultural and political sensibility of upper-middle-class Indians, who would rather travel in comforts, than give up on their subsidy.

Politics over planning and accountability

Equating the inconsistencies of the NDA government with the failure of the railways is a premature burial of commonsense. It is also a terrible attempt at alienating the public at large from economics. Accusations like "criminal negligence" on part of the railways, may be a face-saver for the collective conscience of a nation of overentitled postcolonials and underprivileged constituencies.

It is, however, such politics that is the real killer - administrative and inspectional failure are only subservient to the interests of political and economic apathy.

Tewari and the Congress have raked up a debate, reminding how Lal Bahadur Shastri and Madhav Rao Scindia resigned, in 1956 and 1993, respectively, as railways and aviation ministers. Shastri’s resignation was accepted by the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and was amicably guarded and honoured. In 1988, while Scindia was the railways minister, 100 people died in an accident after a train fell into a river near Quilon, in Kerala. His resignation was overturned on prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s insistence. Later, his tenure as the aviation minister saw the Imphal tragedy, when an Indian Air Force crash killed 69 people, despite the best of his "instincts and intentions".

To now recount these instances as a political defence to Tewari’s narrative of upright politics of Congress cabinet ministers, would seem very irresponsible, indeed. So is his offensive.

 

The suspension of railway staff has been described by the minister of state for railways, Manoj Sinha, as historic and unprecedented. More than anything else, it is cinematic - makes a good screenplay. And besides, our elected democrats in Parliament, we - the everyday politicians - are to blame for the railway tragedy of our country - we who have made a cult and virtue out of every opposition that we seem to pose before the government we have chosen.

Our confusion begets a confused railway policy of the government, and staggeringly confused remarks by the opposition.

In order to truly secure our railways from further destruction of human life - and human property which accrue to us, the so-called tax-payers - the ministry and other political stakeholders must prioritise the operations of the RRAI, and the autonomy of the Indian Railways from the ministry, to begin with. Although railway safety is a concern of policy implementation - and therefore the ministry - it cannot be under the purview of the cabinet in a state of ever-expanding and grossly understaffed railway networks. The non-core subsidies of the railways - police force, schools, hospitals and production and construction units - must really take a back seat behind the question of human safety and investment thereunto.

And finally, the railway board must be corporatised. Let us, in the name of god, give a break to our mindless critiques of capitalism. The state may be as capitalist as its private cooperatives - worse still, it may be a failed capitalist.

At least, that is what happened this Saturday. The horror is still understated, and the politics over dead bodies ever so shrill.