Derailment of the prestigious New Delhi- Dibrugarh Rajdhani Express the other day near Chhapra in Bihar is virtually a wake-up call for the Indian Railways and its newly appointed minister. It is not yet certain what caused the accident that reportedly took four lives. Whether it was sabotage or plain neglect and incompetence on the part of the tracks inspection staff is yet to be ascertained. Inquiries are going to be conducted but a later report said that the Intelligence Bureau had sent an alert about a Maoist threat. The area is Maoists-affected. Nonetheless, it would be premature to arrive at any conclusion.
The fact, however, remains that there have been far too many railway accidents of late. This year alone has witnessed more than half a dozen accidents which have taken many lives. If these occurred because of negligence, inadequacy of equipment due to unavailability of funds or lack of supervision or monitoring, the Railways will have to contend with them as soon as possible taking lessons from the findings of the inquiries to allocate suitable financial, human, and material resources. This is one aspect of railway accidents in India. The other is terror. Terror lurks in this country almost at every bend of the road or a railway track. It could generally be of Islamic variety or of Maoist type. Acute watchfulness is necessary to ensure that they do not harm innocents travelling in a train or wantonly destroy railway property. They are desperados ruthlessly waging war against the State. Safety, therefore, has become an issue of prime importance for the travelling public and the Railways will have to see their way through to provide it.
We run a big railway system, the fourth largest if one goes by track-kilometres. But that is about all. It has only marginally improved since the British left and the erstwhile railway companies were amalgamated into one monolith of Indian Railways. Although considered the lifeline of the nation we failed to take railway transport to a higher level efficiency as some others in Asia, especially China and Japan, have done. We have always suffered from resource constraints. For the last decade or so the populist budgets with no fare hikes in the face of rising costs of inputs, particularly formulated by regional politicians who happened to be at helm, have worsened the situation. Working only to nurse their respective constituencies and handing out freebies to different sections of the privileged, they neglected the railway finances and allowed them to go to seed.
Indians are, therefore, unused to face railway fare hikes for quite some years. No wonder there have been mass demonstrations against the recent hike announced by the new Railway Minister – a virtual necessity to avoid complete “operational and financial collapse”. The Opposition, the Congress party, is crying hoarse about it but its protests, as in many cases, are hypocritical. The hike in the fares was approved by the last Prime Minister but his minister was not man enough to implement it. That is precisely why one tends to think that the Congress never worked for betterment of the country; it only worked for votes.
With the Rajdhani accident questions are, therefore, justifiably being asked whether the fare hike would make railway travels safe. While no such guarantee can ever be extended but the Railways have to give a serious look within to diagnose what it really ails from. It has to look at the issues of repair, renewal and upgrades in every aspect of its functioning that have remained unattended for a long, long time. We had got a head start at the time of Independence when Japan was recovering from the battering of the World War II and China was in the midst of a revolution. And, yet in the 67 intervening years they have stolen not a, but several marches on us, especially in the field of development of railways and taking them to heights that we will take years to scale. Nevertheless, efforts have to be made and these cannot, certainly, be populist.
The Indian railways need enormous amounts of attention, upgrades and finances. All cannot be attended to at once. One feels that it needs to prioritise and start working on things that presently hurt the most. Everyone is talking about its collapsing finances. Like the Union Government, it, too, has to start economising. Last year Pawan Kumar Bansal, the Minister for Railways had announced (DNA 26-02-2013) that as the organisation was staring at a loss of 24000 crores “austerity and economy” would be practised rigorously. No such effort, however, ever hit the headlines. No effort was made to cut down and/or improve the productivity of its 15 lakh personnel and no effort was made to restrict the numbers of freeloaders who travel without paying a pie. Every budget virtually has seen their ranks getting enlarged. One can imagine the losses to the Railways if 15 lakh employees and an equal number of pensioners travel free of cost on it every year. Privy purses of the princes were abolished forty years ago but the erstwhile railway companies’ legacy of free travel for railway employees, even post-retirement, continues till today. Is there any logic?
Then, every budget has seen introduction/extension of trains. Even Bansal, after talking of austerity introduced 67 new express trains and 27 passenger trains. Whether necessary traffic surveys were conducted for all of them is not known. From what happened with the Bhopal-Indore double-decker train which, on introduction, was starved of passengers and is yet to find a viable route to ply on, one would not be sure. Conserving and optimal utilisation of the available resources should be the watchword.
Today, with several accidents in the recent past safety in the railway system has acquired prime importance. There are two sources of threats – internal and external. One is from within the railways because of failure or ageing of equipment, carelessness, lack of commitment of workers and lack of modernisation. Comparatively, the US and China have recorded far lesser numbers of accidents than India. If and when the high speed trains become a reality safety on Indian railways will have to measure up to the ultimate standard. The other source, the external one, will have to be taken care of by utmost vigilance not only by the railways’ own inspection and security establishments but also by other available internal security forces. The elimination of terror on the tracks is necessary.
The internal governance of the railways will have to be tightened since that has direct fallout on passengers’ facilities and conveniences. It cannot remain untouched by the ‘Modi effect’ that has overtaken the Centre which has perked up its offices, breathing new life into them. Sanitation, hygiene and other sundry facilities including punctuality, as indeed the technology currently used, need to be enormously upgraded.
The Indian Railways need a change in its profile