Heads have rolled for far less, but Suresh Prabhu stays railway minister, in spite of 3 major accidents under his watch in the last 10 days alone. India's third railway minister Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned in 1956 after the Ariyalur train accident in Tamil Nadu, in which 142 people died. In 1999, railway minister Nitish Kumar quit office after nearly 300 were killed in a mishap in Assam. And a year later, Mamata Banerjee, Kumar's successor, left her position as well after twin railway tragedies in 2000.
To give Prabhu credit, he did offer to resign after the second disaster but Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked him to wait. Why? No one seems to know for sure, so perhaps it's safe to guess there is no candidate more suitable than Prabhu to don the mantle of the Union railways minister at the moment. Or maybe we can expect better performance from him in the days to come. But that's no comfort to the dead and dying.
Early this morning, the engine and seven coaches of the Nagpur-Mumbai Duronto Express derailed in Kalyan in Maharashtra. Several people were injured, though there were no reports of major casualties. Only days ago, the Delhi-bound Kaifiyat Express had derailed in Uttar Pradesh's Auraiya district on 23 August, leaving at least 81 people injured. On 19 August, the Kalinga Utkal Express also derailed in Muzaffarnagar, again in Uttar Pradesh, killing 22 people and injuring over 200.
A recent HuffPost India story estimated that around 238 persons to have lost their lives in "consequential train accidents" during the year 2016-17. Of these, 193 deaths were from derailments alone, the highest-ever number of deaths from such a cause in the 17 years for which data is available.
Before we get carried away by the data, let's remind ourselves of the plain truth: Indians have been dying in droves for years now, or getting grievously injured, because the State is unable to deliver a safe public transport network, one that is, ironically, funded by the taxpayers' money.
The reasons for such abysmal failure are well-rehearsed. Much noise is made about decades-old tracks that need replacing, faulty signalling system and unmanned level crossings every time an accident happens. But everything goes back to business as usual before the dust on the wreckage has fully settled.
The cycle of blame is unabated: lack of funds, too much pressure on the system to halt services, even to carry out essential maintenance work, human errors caused by appalling working conditions, the list runs long.
Much of it makes eminent sense, too, especially the complaints of locomotive drivers, most of whom don't have access to toilets during shifts that usually stretch for several hours, no proper lunch break, and often not even a seat to rest on. Further, many Indians, regardless of knowing full well that they shouldn't jump level crossings, continue to behave recklessly, bringing death upon themselves. Faulty signalling systems or weather conditions also cause the tracks to misalign, leading to derailment.
Yet, in spite of the staggering number of accidents and deaths (the numbers hover between 150-250 in the last three years), Indian Railways doesn't seem to have found a way to control the mishaps. Occasionally, there are reports of cosmetic changes being made to carriages and new services, usually in the form of reduction of fares or introduction of low-cost luxury trains, but not as much is heard about any systemic overhaul.
But these sops alone cannot deliver the Indian Railways into the 21st century because its operations are turning out to be patently unsafe for passengers, eroding the consumers' trust. So far as affordability is concerned, the coming of a bevy of low-cost airlines has made domestic travel much easier in India now. Gone are those days when most people had no choice but to silently suffer delays on long train journeys.
As recent findings show, middle-class Indians are increasingly preferring air travel over the railways. According to The Indian Express, domestic airlines in India flew around 97.8 million passengers between December 2015 and November 2016. "The comparable classes on Indian Railways — First AC, AC-II, III and First Class — carry on an average 145 million passengers every year," the report said, providing an index of contrast.
Such basic comforts such as bed linen for long-distance journeys and food served on board were found to be below acceptable standards by a recent audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Not only is the food served by the Indian Railways unfit for human consumption, it is often prepared with water that isn't filtered properly, the packaged edible items having passed their date of expiry. Rodents were found in the compartments, causing further worries about cleanliness and compromised public hygiene.
But then, these seem like far lesser inconveniences than the most critical one — of safety — that the Indian Railways is inflicting on its passengers, one that is criminally neglectful of the good faith of the public.
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