Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu told the Lok Sabha earlier this month that the series of train accidents in recent months, involving huge losses of life and property, were "unfortunate" and under investigation. Prabhu asserted: "Whoever plays with the lives of innocent people will not be spared."
But is this good enough? Shouldn't democratic accountability dictate that a railway minister resign as a sign of owning responsibility after a series of train accidents? This is an ethical question that has been sidestepped by successive railway ministers. They do not appear to be impressed by the example of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who stepped down as rail minister in November 1956 when the Ariyalur accident resulted in 140 lives being lost. But then Shastri is often dismissed as too much of an idealist; men like him would not survive in today's dog-eat- dog world, many aver.
Out of the 43 rail ministers, only two had the courage of conviction to demonstrate democratic accountability for the lapses of the ministry under their charge.
The closest to come to him is Nitish Kumar, who resigned as rail minister and owned moral responsibility for the Gaisal train accident that caused 240 deaths in August 1999. However, he returned as railway minister for three years, 2001 to 2004, a period during which several train accidents happened. So Nitish Kumar's is a mixed record.
Out of the 43 rail ministers, only two had the courage of conviction to demonstrate democratic accountability for the lapses of the ministry under their charge. The rest have taken the customary route—a train accident happens, the minister orders an enquiry, compensation is announced for the relatives of the dead (although whether that money ever reaches them is another matter). This cycle has continued for years, regardless of which government is in power. The accident is treated as just another hazard passengers have to live with and the minister bears zero responsibility.
But what does democratic accountability tell us? That those who exercise power must be called to account for their acts of omission and commission. The concept of individual responsibility for failure of public institutions is an accepted fact in a robust democracy.
A railway minister often seeks to escape responsibility by saying that he did not know or was not expected to know that his subordinate officials were not carrying out their responsibilities appropriately. But ignorance does not mitigate responsibility when you are at the top of the pyramid. In the railways, certain patterns of fault are so common that we would expect an efficient system to anticipate them and take reasonable precautions to avoid them.
Since it is a question of lives, not mere amenities, of the rail passengers, it should be the top priority of the rail minister.
Let us not forget that institutional accountability focuses on individuals who run the organisation and those who have the power to change it. After all, the minister not only takes the major institutional decisions, he also decides the institutional conditions in which he makes these decisions. That reinforces his accountability. If he takes the idea of personal responsibility seriously he would certainly take decisions with greater care.
The personal responsibility of the minister alone will lay the foundation for democratic accountability.
Very often, when the clamour for the railway minister's resignation reaches a crescendo after a major rail accident, the minister suspends one or two officials to escape personal responsibility. He forgets though that a minister cannot and must not reject or transfer constructive responsibility for the happenings in his jurisdiction.
However, it does not help if the minister ritualistically goes on to say that "I accept full responsibility" to send out the impression that he does not want to pass the buck. If this admission does not lead to him stepping down, then his words ring hollow.
There are some who would jump to the defence of the political executive and tell us about the principle of collective responsibility—that an incident like a train accident is the outcome of the action (or inaction) of several people down the line and no one individual, even the man at the top, can be held responsible. If anything, they would say, every individual associated with the event should be charged with the ethical responsibility—not just the minister.
The hierarchical position may be relevant in attributing responsibility in some cases, but it must not undermine the significance of democratic accountability that calls for the personal responsibility of the top political executive.
Some would say that such a line of argument would call for the resignation of every railway minister as accidents take place every now and then; the response to this assertion is that if the accident is relatively minor, then there is no reason to ask for the minister's resignation. But if it is a case of a major accident involving loss of lives on a large scale, asking for the personal responsibility of the rail minister is justified.
Of course, most rail ministers live in a world of hubris. Each of them would invariably say that he is doing extraordinary work to keep the behemoth going and, if he is not living up to expectations, then anyone else in his position would have performed worse. The heady mixture of a politician exercising power while believing that he is the God's chosen representative to do so is a sure-fire invitation to disaster.
The minister must realise that his resignation is in order after a major accident not because of an accusation of his complicity but because of the ascription of his democratic responsibility to protect the interest of the rail passengers. If he fails to live up to the demanding standards of his job, he has no business to be in office. The personal responsibility of the minister alone will lay the foundation for democratic accountability.