Wake-up call for Indian Railways
The fate of Indian Railways hangs by a loose thread, and unless amended urgently it could fall flat on its face beckoning tragedy upon hundreds who rely on this system while also rattling our entire economy that largely depends on the railways for effective transportation and communication across difficult terrains in the Indian peninsula. Since the Utkal Express derailment at Khatauli, the Railway Ministry has sprung to action suspending three senior officers including a rail board member. Coming at the onset of sharp criticism from opposition and civilian groups, this move spells out a check on the impending situation that has proven to be catastrophic for several passengers aboard the Haridwar bound train, many of whom lost their lives, several more who were injured and many who while at home lost their dear ones under the most unfortunate circumstances. Suspension for a government official is a strong punishment, especially when meted out under circumstances such as this which have anyway drawn wide criticism. Yet, while we ponder over the situation at hand trying to plaster the cracks which appear glaring to our naked eyes, what is even more consequential and essential now is an overall amendment of the railway system. Suspension of a few officials while important to send out the message of zero-tolerance toward official negligence that compromises on lives of citizens requires a follow-up by concentrated planning and delivery to rejuvenate the entire system of railways which has over the last several decades been repeatedly faltering in the face of technical glitches and mismanagements.
There have been 586 train accidents in the last 5 years, and 53 of these have been caused due to derailments. This is dangerous given the tragedies it could bring about in the event of a mishap. Repair works are often conducted without authorisation or approval which precludes conscious awareness of concerned personnel—which is what we witnessed with the Utkal Express on Saturday evening. The Khatauli station master has repeatedly stated that he was not given any messages regarding ongoing work on the tracks. The Muzaffarnagar station master who was providing signals to the train driver too was given a clean chit on the screen which showed green signals allowing the train to pass. "If maintenance work was going on near Khatauli, a section on the screen should have been red. The driver should have either been asked to stop or pass the area slowly, depending on the work being carried out," said Neeraj Sharma station master at Muzaffarnagar. However, no such red signals showed up, and the train was given the impression that all was hale and hearty. An official statement by the Northern Railways accepting the mishap claimed that "It is a major coordination lapse. Our repairmen had removed a small section of the track and they were in the process of replacing it when the Utkal Express passed at over 100kmph. The officials at Khatauli station should have known." The blame game among officials while underway, suspensions have been immediately meted out by the Ministry with railway board member (engineering) Aditya Kumar Mittal, Northern Railway general manager RK Kulshrestha and division railway manager RN Singh being sentenced on leave until further notice. While individuals are punished for lapses on their part, the tragedy at Khatauli is a subtle reminder of a systemic failure that has been bubbling within the railways since well over the last few decades. Services have been repeatedly terminated due to massive accidents. Only last year a derailment in the outskirts of Kanpur saw the death of 150 people. While the Opposition accuses the Centre of failing to protect its citizens and the Centre dodges the attacking bullets, a conscious effort must be made by all parties of the Indian Union to move ahead of petty arguments and look for a solution that would uplift this essential mode of transportation. There is little we can imagine in the line of progress without railways forming the backbone for facilitating such growth. We are yet to reach the developed state where only technology can form the basis of all living. While punishment is necessary to instil fear among officials of the consequences in case of dereliction of duty, preventing further catastrophes from striking innocent citizens of the country must be a top agenda for whoever occupies the Centre. Our democracy will be doomed if the Centre (irrespective of its occupant) cannot assure its citizens their prized right to basic safety while travelling within the boundaries of the nation.