The Indian Railways, that great unifier, the one colonial legacy that binds us all, the only mode of long-distance travel for most of us, is bursting at the seams and creaking at the joints. It is a sick, bloated enterprise that continues to operate wilfully blind to commercial parameters, uses unfit rolling stock, and has little money for capital expenditure. It is a monopoly in the age of competition, a fount of useless subsidies (like those for accredited journalists), and a relic of socialist political largesse where new trains and halts can be announced on a whim. It is a substandard service provider for its passengers, one that continues to discount human lives. It is an enduring symbol of the eternal callousness of the Indian state.

The derailment of the Indore-Rajendranagar Express at Pukhrayan on November 20 in Kanpur Dehat, Uttar Pradesh, resulted in the death of 145 people. More than 200 were injured. The accident took place at 3 a.m. which falls in the window of death in the Railways; the bulk of accidents take place between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. According to the report of the high-level committee on rail safety headed by Dr. Anil Kakodkar, one of the reasons for the high accident rate during the night is 1.24 lakh “safety vacancies” in the railways. These include loco pilots, guards, and gangmen among others, all positions directly connected with the safe running of trains and track maintenance. The shortage ensures that corners are cut, operating protocols violated, and staff overworked.

With its humungous wage and pension bills, the Railways is in no position to fill these vacancies quickly. It has the unenviable task of cutting its strongly unionised labour force and still make crucial recruitments. So far there is no sign that the rail ministry is dealing with the problem with any urgency. Once news of the accident spread, and the toll kept climbing, the familiar announcements kept coming: of ex-gratia payments from the state government and the railways. Ex-gratia is an offensive term. It means that the government has no legal obligation, but is compensating the victims out of the moral goodness of its heart. It is an insult to the victims of rail accidents, because the Railways does have a legal obligation to ensure the safety of its trains and passengers. That is part of its citizen charter. Any lapse or negligence gives passengers a right to class action. Paltry doles in the name of moral obligation are no substitute for strict legal liability. While the Railways Act does provide for compensation in case of accidents before a claims tribunal, it is not enough. There is cause for victims of rail accidents to jointly sue the Railways, especially where negligence in maintenance and safety can be proved.

A perfect example of a phenomenon crying out for class action worth hundreds of crores against the Railways is the everyday deaths on the Mumbai suburban network. Between 2002-2012, more than 36,000 people were killed on Mumbai train lines. Most deaths were caused either by being hit while crossing the track or falling from overcrowded carriages. The Kakodkar committee called the 15,000 annual deaths across the country due to encroachments and trespassing along tracks a “massacre” for which the Railways can’t be allowed escape responsibility.

The Railways is broken. According to the Bibek Debroy committee report, the structure is too complex, decision-making too bureaucratic, and accounting practices archaic. The Railways doesn’t even have a system to calculate how much revenue a train makes. New trains have been introduced without following commercial norms, and most high-density tracks in the country see over 100 per cent utilisation. More trains run on tracks more times than the tracks can handle. Passenger fares are highly subsidised, and freight tariff artificially inflated. It has 50,000 bridges that are over 100 years old, of which 3,000 are in critical need of repair. It needs to replace 4,500 km of track every year, but it isn’t managing even half of that. It needs at least Rs. 1,00,000 crore immediately to make trains safer. It survives on a perennial line of credit from the government.

This is the impossible task railway minister Suresh Prabhu has to achieve. The lives of 23 million passengers travelling on 13,800 trains going through 8,500 stations are his direct responsibility, and no amount of cleaning the stations with broom in hand will help.

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