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Deadly Train Wrecks Imperil India's Lifeline: World View

Three incidents involving trains that killed more than 100 people  over the the last week naturally caused a public uproar in India, as citizens considered afresh the risks involved in using the services of Indian Railways, an organization that calls itself the "lifeline to the nation" on its Website.

In the early hours of  July 7, 38 people were killed and at least as many injured when a train collided with a bus carrying members of a wedding party at an unmanned level crossing in the northern  state of Uttar Pradesh. Then, on July 10, at least 68 people were killed and more than  250 injured when 15 bogies of the Howrah-Kalka Mail careered off the tracks, again in Uttar Pradesh, while the train was travelling at more than  60 miles (100 kilometers) per hour. The exact cause of the derailment couldn't be immediately ascertained, even from the drivers of the train, who regained consciousness in hospital the next day. That evening, six coaches of the Guwahati-Puri Express derailed in Assam after a bomb was set off on the tracks, injuring more than 100 people. It is likely that a local insurgent group in India's troubled north-east was responsible.

These events established many things: that the price of a life in India continues to be far too cheap, that inefficiency and neglect continue to be as much a threat as terrorism, that the railways are in urgent need of reform and careful direction, that emergency-response mechanisms in most parts of the country remain rudimentary, and, finally, that this was a problem for which the UPA government was clearly culpable. For two months, the country has been without a full-time railway minister. The last holder of the post, Mamata Banerjee, resigned in May to become chief minister of West Bengal after her party, the Trinamool Congress, won the state elections. But the Railway Ministry has also long been held hostage to the pathologies of coalition politics, as powerful regional parties have laid claim to it as a condition of their support of the Indian National Congress and then used it as a tool of patronage.

This crisis affects almost everyone in the country. Indian Railways, which has a monopoly on train travel and is the largest railway system under single management in the world, carries about 19 million passengers every day across long distances on about 7,000 trains that run the length and breadth of the country, on a network cumulatively about 40,000 miles in length. While the services aren't of the highest standard, fares are absurdly cheap, meaning that the railways enjoy a measure of  good will with the Indian public that almost no other service operated by the government does. There is almost no train on which tickets aren't always sold out. Many poor and middle-class Indians spend extensive amounts of their time riding the rails, and even the rich often use the railways to travel short distances in air-conditioned comfort. The reminder that one of the most common Indian experiences could be fatal was a cause of great distress to many Indians, who commiserated with the family and friends of the dead and sought to ask hard questions of the government.

An editorial in the Deccan Chronicle pointed out that the accidents weren't especially surprising, since:

It appears that in the past decade, the railways have failed to meet their own corporate safety plan targets. The Comptroller and Auditor-General has pointed to failures in the meeting of goals in key areas such as the modernising of signalling equipment, installation of the anti-collision devices, maintenance of assets and the filling of safety-related vacancies at all levels.

According to the CAG, there was shortage of safety staff in almost all sections in all 16 railway zones. It appears that the key post of member (traffic) on the Railway Board has not been filled for over a year, while general managers in several zones have not been appointed. These top-level personnel oversee the flow of traffic in all directions and in handling train operations overall.

In fact, if things remain the way they are, more accidents are waiting to happen. The railways are a departmentally run undertaking of the Government of India, and are led by a Cabinet minister at the Centre. In recent years, however, the political appointee has been an absentee owner of the fief, as is graphically illustrated by the case of Mamata Banerjee, who had no time to give to her charge as she was concentrating on wresting control of Kolkata’s Writers’ Buildings.

Before her, Lalu Prasad Yadav sought to build a reputation for himself as a manager by augmenting railway revenues, but generally left railway safety to chance, ushering in neither consolidation nor innovation.

And in a somewhat incoherent, but nonetheless revealing, report about the Kalka Mail mishap titled "Politics Makes Delhi-Howrah Route Corridor of Death," Mahendra Kumar Singh wrote in The Times of India:

Sunday's rail accident that killed at least 68 and injured 181 occurred on the Delhi-Howrah route — one of the busiest routes — thanks to successive ministers from the eastern part of the country.

The ministers — be it Ram Vilas Paswan, Lalu Prasad or Mamata Banerjee — pushed railway mandarins to run new trains at higher speed catering to their constituency despite the route being saturated.

The route, a part of golden quadrilateral, was put under more strain after Banerjee took charge and went on to announce a slew of Kolkata-bound trains in quick succession.

In the Hindustan Times, Srinand Jha wrote:

The Railways theory (calculated in terms of per million route kilometre) is that train accidents in India are among the lowest in the world. But this theory ignores the fact that the actual number of people killed in train accidents in India is among the highest in the world.

“Human lives cannot be termed in terms of averages. A zero accident policy is just not there on the radar of the railways management,” admitted an official.[...] “Railways ministers have mostly used the Railways as a platform to further their political interests and structural reforms have not been actually undertaken,” said Vivek Khare, a railways expert.

And the Indian Express observed in an editorial:

There is a real danger that the frequency of train accidents in India might soon desensitise people as “yet another” instance of what has become thoughtlessly, mind-numbingly commonplace. That might be the cruel legacy of our serially populist railway ministers, most of all the last one. [...] The railway ministry has been hostage to coalition politics, with one or another coalition partner assuming the ministry as its by right. With a cabinet reshuffle imminent and with the prime minister still in charge of the ministry after Mamata Banerjee’s resignation, this practice should be ended immediately and the ministry given to a responsible individual. [...] A decisive change is required in allocating ministries so that certain jobs do not go to certain allies automatically.

Indian Railways must undergo crucial reforms. It is time to turn around the “socialist”, statist behemoth by rationalising fares indexed to fuel costs and prioritising projects, to say nothing of yanking the railways off eco-parks, sports academies or museums. Above all, IR is a financial disaster. Its 2011 budget outlay of Rs 57,630 crore is tied up with a borrowing of Rs 20,594 crore; 10 of its 16 zones missed their operating ratio targets in the last fiscal, and little has been done to upgrade railway infrastructure to make journeys safer and faster. The next minister cannot milk IR for electoral points in her home state, and must set to work turning IR into a professionally managed, cost-effective but state-of-the-art, 21st century transportation system.

The incidents  occurred as the government was preparing a reshuffle of the Cabinet. When the list of new ministers was announced, it was no surprise to find that the Trinamool Congress had retained control of the Indian Railways portfolio, nominating one of its lawmakers, Dinesh Trivedi, for the job. Predictably, the new railway minister announced that safety would be his top priority, but in a television interview he gave a rambling and disingenuous answer to a question about his party appearing to have a monopoly over the Railway Ministry. It was hard to shake off the suspicion that even the loss of more than 100 lives hasn't been enough to wake the government up to the extent of the crisis affecting one of its most important services.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

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