Editor’s Note: India’s worst train accident since 1995

There is evidence that the Railways is plagued by systemic neglect and callous disregard for safety.

Published : Jun 15, 2023 11:00 IST - 3 MINS READ

In what is India’s worst train accident since the Firozabad disaster of 1995, 288 people have died so far and a thousand-plus have been injured. The Balasore tragedy is among the deadliest train crashes worldwide. Photographs and eyewitness accounts coming from the site have left the country shaken

The Coromandel Express has been a vital link between Chennai and Kolkata (and the larger north-east) for four decades now, ferrying goods and people along the east coast States of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal. The Yesvantpur-Howrah Express was introduced around two decades ago. The most affordable option for thousands of migrant workers who come from the east and north-east to south India, both trains are always teeming with humanity.

The coming weeks will see feverish “investigations”, both of the official and the television kind. There will be a witch-hunt for saboteurs. Against usual practice, the CBI has been dragged in.

But insiders know that it was human error or a technical glitch that was waiting to happen. They know the immense pressure on budgets and systems that the world’s fourth largest railway network faces. They know of other close shaves in the recent past, all of which pointed to accumulating systemic neglect and callous disregard for safety at the highest levels. Reports show that as late as February 9, a top official warned the Railway Minister of a glitch in the signalling system.

All these signs were ignored in the rash of Vande Bharat jamborees that is spreading feverishly across the country.

Finding that one linesman or signaller to blame will change nothing, prevent nothing. The compass of culpability will swing as it must to the unforgivable neglect that has characterised the government’s attitude towards this giant enterprise of communication and connectivity, this lifeline for vast swathes of the country.

All politicians dislike blame, but the image-conscious and spin-doctored dispensation that is in power today particularly hates accountability. Yet, look in the mirror it must. The Congress has flagged a CAG report from last December that shows that at least Rs.48 crore from the Railway safety fund, launched in 2017-18 by the then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, was spent on a colourful list of sundries that includes foot massagers and furniture, winter jackets and crockery. Chances are this is only the tip of what could be a massive scam.

To take just one example, the (typically retro-referentially named) Kavach anti-collision device can only work if all 13,000 engines in the Railways are fitted with it. Until last year, only 65 engines had the Kavach. It is nobody’s case that India does not need newfangled trains, but surely hard-found budgets must go first towards vital safety devices. Fancy trains on already well-serviced routes are a good photo op but they don’t save lives. The government appears to have abandoned safety for glamour and speed just as unceremoniously as it junked the Railway Budget. And non-glamorous train passengers have paid with their lives.

Now, the entire system is busy throwing out red herrings to divert attention away from the deepening crisis in the Railways and towards “external interveners”.

In this issue of the magazine, R.K. Radhakrishnan files an excellent and meticulous piece that traces the crash and its aftermath, while R. Elangovan, former vice president of the Dakshin Railway Employees Union, breaks down the criminal neglect of the Railways. The Frontline team marshals stats and facts to bring you the full story.

As we go to press, some 80 bodies still lie unclaimed. The government must answer the plaints at least of these unsung dead.

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