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Railway needs Gandhi’s talisman

Railway needs Gandhi’s talisman
Last Friday a photograph on the front page of Indian Express sent a chill down my spine even though the weather in Delhi is yet to take its winter avatar. It was a young mother holding onto the body bag of her tiny-tot, who was killed in an accident at an unmanned railway crossing in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

We are revisiting the photo to recall her expression, unable to come to terms with the unexpected loss she had just suffered. She must have lovingly prepared lunch, got her child dressed in uniform and bade goodbye, thinking about the moment of her eventual return home. But that was not to happen, as her baby was among the five kindergarten children who were killed, when a school van was hit by a Varanasi-bound passenger train at an unmanned railway crossing in Mau district. Nine other children were also injured in the accident.

The tragedy was followed by standard protocol, with Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu terming the accident as “unfortunate” and announcing a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to the next of the kin of the deceased. “A big accident has happened as a van carrying school kids collided with a train....it is unfortunate that the driver didn’t stop to see as is expected of him at an unmanned level crossing and this led to the tragedy,” the minister told reporters outside Parliament.

The police registered an FIR of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and other penal sections against 26-year-old van driver Suvinder. Commissioner Azamgarh also announced a magisterial inquiry. By the time this notebook appears in print it’s possible that the Railway Ministry and the Uttar Pradesh government would have practically closed the file on the matter, having done their job, as they would say in government parlance, to the best of their knowledge and belief. However, will this file ever close for this mother and others, who lost their children in an avoidable mishap? These children were from a village and ferried to a nearby town for the purpose of receiving better education. This accident illustrates the typical Indian paradox. On the one hand even parents from villages want to embrace modern education, but their flight is held back by an anachronic unmanned railway crossing.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said that railway facilities were the same as they were 100 years back and that he wanted to privatise railway stations to modernise them. “Stations should be better than airports as most travellers are poor people,” Modi reasoned. “We can easily have trains running below and commercial properties above (floor).” At a time when real estate is very expensive, railways should leverage its properties by allowing private parties to build luxury hotels, restaurants and other facilities, he added. He said once this exercise is completed, the government will carry out modernisation of stations across the country.

Mr Prime Minister, I would have been happier if you had a plan on how to modernise railway operations. Your private operators would certainly come pitching in to grab the precious real estate of the Railways, which you have put on offer. However, will they show the same enthusiasm, when asked to run the monolith network of trains? If the precedence of Reliance running away from operating the Airport Metro is anything to go by, the Indian corporate does not believe in performing duties for the nation.

The Anil Ambani-led conglomerate had eyed both the maintenance of the airport and the operation of the Airport Metro. They failed to get the contract for the former and found operating the latter too taxing. First, they abruptly suspended the operations and then withdrew from it, breaching the contract with a lacklustre government, which showed further timidity by not demanding a penalty. I am no votary for jihadist populism, which Mamata Banerjee unleashed as Railway Minister. But at the same time we should not forget that Railways is part of our national infrastructure, which ensures the mobility of India’s masses, especially in a country where availability of labour in every sector is dependent on seasonal migration.

The Prime Minister and the Railway Minister have to carry out a reality check on their computers in the mornings to know how ticket booking servers crash and how in the name premium tatkal tickets, poor and middle class passengers are being fleeced. The Prime Minister has talked about running bullet trains. In the party’s poll manifesto for Lok Sabha elections, the Prime Minister had announced a diamond quadrilateral of bullet trains to connect the four major cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai. Earlier this year, while presenting the Modi government’s first Budget, erstwhile Railway Minister Sadanand Gowda had said, “Indian Railways is on course to fulfil its long cherished dream. I propose a bullet train on the Ahmedabad- Mumbai sector.”

I do not hold a grudge against running bullet trains. However, while conducting matters on policy, the Prime Minister should recall Gandhi’s famous talisman. “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melt away,” Gandhi said.

Mr Prime Minister, when you sit with your friend and Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu to discuss the Railway Budget, recall the pain of this mother in angst and ask yourself if the Budget you plan is going to be of any use to her.

The author is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post
Sidharth Mishra

Sidharth Mishra

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