In the wee hours of Wednesday, August 23, the destinies of passengers aboard the Kaifiyat Express, bound for Delhi, received a major jolt in Auraiya — in another derailment in Uttar Pradesh, the second in five days.
The accident that happened 180km from Lucknow, has left over seventy people wounded, four of who are in critical condition. Political clamouring for Suresh Prabhu’s resignation is running shrill even after the minister for the Railways has offered to resign.
This announcement has come barely hours after the resignation of AK Mittal, the Railway Board chairman, which was presented earlier this morning. Prabhu is yet to take a final call on Mittal’s resignation, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet to decide on Prabhu’s own resignation.
Competing for Tragic Numbers
The Congress party, that has been demanding Prabhu’s resignation ever since the Kalinga Utkal Express tragedy, last Saturday, may well be wary of the past coming to haunt its legacy.
Congress ministers have been associated with the railways, not just since the Independence, but since the struggle for Independence when they made the railways the theater of a glorious and bloody anti-colonial resistance. In recent times, however, their performance has been more bloody than glorious.
According to data released by the ministry of railways, there were 135 recorded railway accidents in 2014-15, which was the last year of the Congress government. Since then, the average number of accidents per year has been about 110.
Going back to the fin de siècle records of the railways under Congress, one finds Lalu Prasad Yadav, the then railway minister, saying in his 2004 Budget speech, “This has been the lowest number of accidents ever.” The number he was referring to was 325 train accidents. The numbers of accidents from 2000-2002 were 473, 414 and 351, respectively.
The average number of train disasters was over 360, during this period. The rest of Yadav’s speech contained the same buzzwords that today’s railway announcements are peppered with — unprecedented improvements in unmanned level crossings, obsolete assets, inefficient signaling gears, tracks, bridges, rolling stock, railway safety fund, and so on.
Meanwhile, unmanned crossings have been the reason for one accident out of every five in the last two years taking 98 lives. Uttar Pradesh — the site of the most recent twin-disasters—itself has 1100 such crossings.
It is another thing that what Yadav said then was a welcome broadcast, while Prabhu’s announcements on Twitter about railway crossings and age-old assets have earned him mock-accolades of being a "good railway minister on social media." Thirteen years ago, Yadav was referring to the tenure of Nitish Kumar, 2001-04.
Kumar had had another tenure, until 1999, when he resigned taking responsibility for the Gaisal tragedy, in Assam, that killed 290 people. Kumar was not a Congress minister, nor did the tragedy during in his tenure happen in a Congress ruled India. Earlier, Congress minister, Madhav Rao Scindia, who was both minister for the railways and aviation, had tendered his resignation due to similar tragedies concerning both his departments.
Scindia and Kumar have both been hailed later due to their political uprightness in their respective ministries—justifiably so.
However, Prabhu is facing an alarmingly different treatment, with pressures to resign. With the deafening rhetoric of loss of human lives and the need to take accountability, one wonders where are the voices that can speak in a similar pitch of the issues that need preparation and resurgence—railway technology and human resource and economics—that need to be settled before the loss of more lives can be averted.
Politicising the Railways
The railways has never been more politicised than since last year when the Union Government decided to absorb the railway budget into the central budget. Prabhu bore on himself the burden to represent the government, calling this a step towards depoliticisation of the budget.
Supposedly, the Center was trying to override the policies of the previous ministries under Lalu Prasad Yadav or Mamata Banerjee who had allegedly spent 80 per cent of their budgetary allowances in their own states — using the railway budget as a tool to appease their constituencies.
Earlier, however, when the railway budget and the union budget were delinked, there was a semblance of autonomy in the railways. People’s literacy in railway matters was governed by the ideology of seeing the railways as an entity that belonged to all — not merely one or another ruling party.
Ironically, in a bid to depoliticise the railways, the NDA-led government appears to have done quite the opposite. It has, of course, ruled out the possibility of doling out railway sops in poll-bound states. For this, the Center and the ministry of railways amply compensates by announcing luxury railways and high-speed bullet trains. Nonetheless, it has given a chance to the opposition to continually harp on the fact that the Center must assume direct responsibility for railway casualties. The government has been derailed into a trap of its own making.
In any case, it is astonishing how the loss of human lives has been seamlessly reified into an anti-government rhetoric. The Congress, of course, has a role to play and their criticism is only a discharging of that duty. Nonetheless, what astonishes more is how almost no voice seems to be questioning the need for better governance of the railways, beyond demanding resignations from its current Ministry.
The Indian Railways is a great conundrum of economic number games. Simply put, its annual losses of Rs 33,000 crores boils down to a loss of 57 per cent in passenger fares. Of every rupee that the Indian Railways earns, only 25 paise comes from passenger fares. As one goes down the hierarchy of classes in the railways, that is from AC First Class to Third AC and sleeper classes, as much as 50% of the railway fare is contributed to by the Railways.
And while over 50 per cent of railway passengers are part of suburban short haul commuters, they contribute not more than 7 per cent of the total revenues — a glaring gap of 43 per cent that the railways has been subsidising.
It may only be hoped at this stage, therefore, that both the Center and the opposition will unite over this tragedy of numbers — economic and human. The Congress or the BJP, when out of rule and power, have vociferously stated that they are united over issues of national security and foreign policy vis a vis adversarial forces.
It is very little to ask of them therefore to be united over this delinquency—the desperate need for efficient governance and corporatisation of the Indian Railways — rather than opposition and civilian loudspeakers baying for Prabhu’s resignation. It will go a long way in the service of the nation if political parties tried to make their constituencies more literate about railway expenditure and its decentralisation — in the process, educate themselves.