An old man hailing from Sugo village of Bhadrak district in Odisha is walking among the hundreds of bodies placed in a school compound. One by one he lifts the cloth over dead bodies to see their faces. Asked who he is looking for,.the weeping man replies in a broken voice, “I am looking for my son who was in Coromandel express, but I can’t find him.” His story is one among hundreds of people who had their family or friends in the two trains that met with a horrific accident on the evening of June 2 in Balasore (Baleswar) district of Odisha. It was in the morning of June 3 that India began to wake up to the extent and intensity of the tragedy, with nearly 300 dead and 1000 injured identified. Apart from the huge toll of identified deaths, we have to take into account the list of passengers and cases of unidentified death. The scale of critical and serious injuries is also quite enormous. By all indications, Balasore will be remembered as one of India's worst rail disasters in years with the scale of trauma and devastation still unfolding.
What urgent steps must India take to address a massive disaster like the Balasore train tragedy? Beyond immediate rescue and restoration, there is the question of fixing of responsibility and guaranteeing of compensation for the victims. And of course, measures must be taken to ensure as far as possible that such a disaster is never again repeated.
The majority of the victims were migrant workers from West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Jharkhand who increasingly seek work in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Death of such family breadwinners is liable to derail these families and they will need long-term financial support from the state to survive this trauma. But to discharge this financial responsibility towards the victims the state must first of all accept its accountability.
The Modi government however is notorious for its characteristic lack of this sense of accountability. Far from undertaking a thorough scrutiny and urgent correction of the underlying structural factors, the government is inclined to portray the disaster as an act of sabotage and conspiracy. Even before the Commission of Railway Safety could submit its report, the government has got the Railway Board to transfer the investigation to CBI. A few years ago two accident cases (Kanpur 2016 and Kuneru 2017) were handed over to the NIA with draconian UAPA provisions invoked to deal with railway accidents. Nothing has been found out till now to support these conspiracy theories.
Asking CBI and NIA to investigate railway accidents is a very clear indication that the Modi government will continue to be in denial mode about the neglected crucial agenda of railway safety. Various authorities, including the Commission for Railway Safety (CRS), Comptroller General of India (CAG) and Railway officials have flagged numerous safety issues in the railway and yet such warnings have been routinely ignored. Much of the railway infrastructure needs urgent upgradation, but instead of undertaking modernisation and ensuring safety, the government has been obsessed with high speed trains. In the name of celebrating the 75th anniversary of India's independence, the Modi government announced a grand scheme of launching seventy-five Vande Bharat trains which are essentially a repackaged version of the Shatabdi expresses running between major cities. Each train is being flagged off by PM Modi and with the railways not able to supply new trains, the government is even launching trains with fewer coaches.
The problem of neglect of railway safety, proper maintenance and modernisation has assumed fatal proportions with continuing decline in railway manpower. The railways have traditionally been the biggest employment sector for the government, but in recent past the sector is witnessing an alarming decline in manpower with more than 3 lakh vacant posts and continuing abolition of posts. Half of the vacant and abolished posts directly affect safety. The adverse impact is palpable: the performance audit report tabled by the CAG in Parliament in December 2022 showed an alarming increase in the incidence of derailments with three out of every four major derailments being related to lack of track maintenance and inspection.
There has been a lot of celebratory propaganda of late about the introduction of an anti-collision technology called Kavach. But the technology actually covers only a little over 2% of India's nearly 70 thousand kilometre railway track and at the current level of budgetary allocation and implementation it will take decades to cover the entire length. In this case, the concerned section of the accident-affected route was not Kavach-covered. The government is of course busy telling us that Kavach could not possibly have prevented this particular accident as it was caused by failure of the electronic interlocking (EI) signal system. But the fact is there has been a specific warning in this regard too which went unheeded by the administration.
A note submitted by a senior operations department official of the South Western Railway in February mentioned a possible head-on collision that was averted at the Hosadurga Road station in Birur-Chikjajur section of the Mysore division of SWR because of the alertness of the driver and the slow speed of the train. The note had mentioned the similarity in the layout between the Hosadurga and Bahanaga bazar stations and stressed the need for urgent steps to overhaul the signal system and remove the obvious loopholes and vulnerabilities. Had the Railway administration taken note of this warning, the Balasore train tragedy could have perhaps been averted.
Instead of improving the safety mechanism and other basics to improve the railways as a system of public transport catering to the travel needs of the world's now most populous country, we can see a steady restructuring of the railways in the opposite direction. The annual Railway budget which provided a platform for some regular public scrutiny of the underlying factors affecting safety and provision in the railways was scrapped soon after the Modi government took over. It was a move akin to the dismantling of the planning commission and its transformation into the so-called NITI Aayog. Indeed, the department of railways no longer has a dedicated full time cabinet Minister with the current Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw juggling the responsibilities of as many as three key departments - railways, electronics and information technology, and communications.
Privatisation, profit and PR are the three P's that now drive this crucial economic economic lifeline, and the two P's that should matter most - people and public service - have been relegated to the background. Instead of a safe, affordable and people-friendly mode of transport for the masses of Indian people, the railways are being marketed increasingly as a transport system for the comfort of the affluent. This course has to be reversed and the railways need to be reclaimed for the people. The vacancies must be filled at the earliest and safety must get topmost priority.
Instead of addressing the core issues and drawing the basic lessons, the government is using the tragedy to promote its propaganda campaign and political agenda. Instead of focusing on the plight of the people and holding the government accountable, the media is being nudged and used to protect and project the rail minister's image. And social media is being flooded with IT cell lies and hate-filled narratives targeting the BJP's chosen enemies, be it the minority Muslim community or the political opposition. This shameful and cynical weaponisation of a horrific tragedy must be defeated. The powers that be must be held accountable and the people assured that there will be no more Balasore-type disasters.