The blame game

Print edition : January 17, 2003

A major train accident in Andhra Pradesh's naxalite country leads to claims of sabotage and counter-charges of shoddy track maintenance by the Railways.

in Hyderabad

The mangled bogies of Hyderabad-Bangalore Express at the accident site, on December 21.-INDRANIL MUKHERJEE /AFP

WHEN Nerella Anjaneyulu, the Andhra Pradesh Minister for Technical Education, boarded the Kacheguda-Bangalore Express train in Hyderabad at 7 p.m on December 20 along with hundreds of other ordinary passengers, everyone was looking forward to a good night's sleep. But barely five hours later, a nightmare began for all of them with a rude jolt. Nine of the 22 bogies derailed between the Pendekallu and Gooty railway stations, about 300 km from Hyderabad. Three bogies were thrown into a dry stream below an embankment and smashed. The Minister himself escaped unscathed and called officials in Hyderabad over his mobile phone.

Police and railway teams arrived soon and the rescue operations went on until dawn. The toll was heavy: 20 persons dead and over 80 injured, 24 of them seriously.

The tragedy assumed a new dimension by that evening when S. M. Singla, General Manager of South Central Railway (SCR), declared it to be the consequence of an act of sabotage. Union Railway Minister Nitish Kumar also announced from Patna that the accident could be the handiwork of miscreants.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu asked the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the State police to launch an inquiry, for hewas unhappy with the railways' version. It was pointed out that there were complaints made by local people about shoddy track-laying work only six months ago.

Moreover, the reasons given by the SCR were a repeat of the ones that were put out after the derailment of the Visakhapatnam-Hyderabad Godavari Express near Ghanpur in June 1999 . Railway officials had attributed the accident that led to the death of eight passengers (including Devineni Venkataramana, State Minister for Primary Education) to sabotage by the removal of 20 `fasteners' that held the tracks to the sleepers.

The sabotage theory implied, then as it has done now, that naxalites were responsible for the act and that the law and order situation in the State was deteriorating. K. Sivaprasada Rao, then Minister for Panchayat Raj, had said: "The Railways always try to pass the buck by dubbing every accident as an act of sabotage. They do not properly maintain the tracks despite growing speeds and increasing traffic."

As in the case of the Godavari Express three years ago, the ill-fated Bangalore Express was travelling at a speed of over 80 kmph. But investigators are baffled by the fact that the Bangalore-Kacheguda Express had passed along the same stretch of the track barely 20 minutes earlier, travelling at the same speed as the Bangalore-bound train.

What raised the suspicions of sabotage was a vertical cut found on the upper portion of the track. The lower portion was also broken, apparently owing to the impact of the train passing over it. Scratch marks near the cut strengthened doubts that culprits might have used a hacksaw to cut the iron rail. Sniffer dogs led the police to a spot about 75 metres away where a hacksaw frame, several hacksaw blades, iron dust and so on were found.

Director-General of Police P. Ramulusupported the sabotage theory despite conflicting versions that were doing the rounds. B.R. Seth, the Chief Track Officer, said the track could have been cut "only minutes before" the accident. But this ran contrary to forensic investigation reports that rust had developed in the gap between the cut.

If this was indeed the handiwork of naxalites, why would they have resorted to such a crude and rudimentary method: this was the question that was being asked. J.J. Rao, a former Chief Commissioner of Railway Safety, pointed out that if someone wanted to derail a train, they could simply remove a couple of sleeper fittings instead of wasting time cutting rails.

Devender Goud, State Home Minister, told Frontline: "When the naxalites are blowing up entire buildings of railway stations, it is meaningless to imagine they will spend an entire week filing away at the track. Their modus operandi is to conduct an operation swiftly and escape from the scene."

The railway administration of course has a precedent to go by. On October 11, 1990, naxalites poured petrol inside a packed compartment of the Kakatiya Passenger at Ghatkesar railway station, 30 km from Hyderabad, and set it aflame killing 48 persons. The extremist People's War (PW) later owned up responsibility for the incident and expressed remorse saying it was all a mistake. The SCR, on its part, has been facing charges with regard to selection of contractors for its work on the basis of considerations other than merit. It has allegedly been a common practice for contractors to form cartels backed by powerful politicians and use force to prevent others from submitting tender offers.

Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has asked the police to send samples collected at the accident site to the Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratories, Hyderabad, for further analysis. Preliminary investigation reports indicated that the derailment may indeed have been the consequence of an act of sabotage. But the detailed probe continues.

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