Dear Rail Mantri Pawan Kumar Bansal,
You must be glowing with pride today at having presented your railway budget for 2013-14, particularly after your cabinet colleagues like fellow minister P Chidambaram praised your budget to the skies. Oops, you could call that a wrong aphorism to use here but what's a misplaced aphorism or misleading applause when we talk about a budget with a deficit of tens of thousands of crores?
Your budget offered next to nothing to Mumbai's suburban railway system, not even the grandiose plans and studies rolled out by your predecessors in the last two years. Such plans are where they usually end up - on paper. Still, plans offer hope to 7.5 million commuters in Mumbai. Bansalji, you have not even allowed us - hapless, pushed to the brink, cheating death or stampede every journey -any hope that our commute will be marginally more tolerable and less hazardous. Note, I say tolerable, not comfortable.
Of course, I am discounting your announcement of the air-conditioned coach in a suburban rake; I will believe it when I see it. But to get to that coach I will have to risk getting crushed in a stampede on the foot-over bridge, if one exists at the railway station, brave the densely-populated platform and hope that in the final dash into it, I will not slip between the platform and the train given the wide gap that defines almost each of our suburban platforms.
You, Bansalji, said something about "zero-accident" target. You may have missed the detail that the three suburban lines servicing Mumbai have, for nearly a decade now, witnessed a continuing horror: ten commuters dying and 20 suffering injuries every single day. Or an average of 3,500 deaths a year. Your officers will give you the details that we have from repeated RTI queries: 20,706 dead in five years upto 2010, another 11,541 dead and 15,300 injured in 32 months from January 2009 to August 2011, the numbers simply do not decline. You may have heard of the Anil Kakodkar high-level safety review report submitted last February. It stated that nearly 40 per cent of all track deaths happen on local rail services and called such deaths a "massacre".
If nearly 3,500 people were blown to bits every year in bomb blasts, there would have been an uproar by now, calls to hunt down the "enemy" and perhaps go to war. Are commuter deaths less horrific? That people should die while crossing tracks because there aren't foot-over bridges, falling off moving trains, getting fatally hit by trackside poles, electrocuted while travelling on train roofs, not as an aberration but regularly every year, is testimony to the scant attention your ministry has paid to the issue so far. The injured have no access to medical facilities on platforms or even ambulances to reach them to nearby hospitals.
You haven't done any different other than mumble something about "zero-accident". Budget estimates allocate money to that which the government considers important. This year's railway budget, in continuing tradition, has allocated nothing to commuter safety in a city that forms 30 per cent of all railway passenger traffic in the country.
I understand that figures don't mean much to minister sitting in their Blocks in New Delhi. Here's a suggestion: why don't you come to Mumbai, let's say to Dadar which is among the most crowded stations, and board a train to Virar at 6pm? Or you could choose a train to Kalyan. Just one condition: please do not bring your lackeys and hangers-on who will clear the platform and secure your entry into a compartment, as your leader Rahul Gandhi's did two years ago.
You will then realise that while we welcome air-conditioned coaches and escalators, we are really deeply concerned about the "massacre" on our tracks.