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A killer on the tracks

delhi Updated: Aug 22, 2013 23:40 IST
Srinand Jha
Srinand Jha
Hindustan Times
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The Dhamara Ghat tragedy in Bihar’s Khagaria district — where 37 kawaria pilgrims were run over by a speeding train on August 19 — has evoked predictable responses: minister of state for railways Adhir Ranjan Chowdhary has blamed the state government while Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has rubbished such “irresponsible inferences”.

Within the railways, there are efforts to pass on the blame. The Railway Board describes the tragedy as a “security failure” and not a “safety failure” — meaning that the ministry itself is above board and that the personnel of the Railway Protection Force (RPF) or Government Railway Police (GRP) didn’t do their jobs. As the semantics and blame-game continue, the 37 deaths will soon be forgotten.

“Such weird things can happen only in the BIMARU states”. This has been the general response to the horrendous accident. BIMARU is an acronym for Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — all of which are considered backward in many ways.

This presumption, however, is incorrect. The facts are that of the 50,293 ‘trespassers’ or non-passengers killed on rail tracks in three-and-a-half years from January 2009 to June 2012, the highest number of deaths (see graphic) has been reported in Maharashtra, followed by West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

Alarmingly, there is no focus on evolving mechanisms to prevent such deaths in the future. On an average, 39 people have been mowed down by trains every day between January 2009 and June 2012.

Sure enough, the kawarias at Dhamara Ghat had no business to stand defiantly in front of a speeding train. But can railway officials be absolved for having violated guidelines to fore-warn the driver to slow down the train hurtling at 80 km per hour?

“At least the red flag could have been waved. But the railways failed in their responsibility,” railway expert Satish Vaish said.

Remaining content about packing people in train compartments, the railways have failed to provide for dignified travel by increasing capacity in terms of more trains, coaches and tracks.

And the critical task of eliminating railway crossings by building road over-bridges or underpasses remains incomplete.

In 94 years from 1853 to 1947, a rail network of 54,000 km was built at the rate of 574 km of tracks per year. In the 66 years since Independence, just about 10,000 km of tracks have been added to the network at the rate of about 151 km per year.

Except for the perfunctory ‘penal transfers’, no Group-A or B railway officer has been charge-sheeted or punished for rail accidents or deaths of trespassers since Independence. This is no coincidence: Section 186 of the Railways Act of 1989 prohibits legal proceedings against railway officials acting in “good faith”.

Being an operator and regulator, the business interests of the railways often clash with their executive functions. “Permitting overloading of trains and encouraging or compelling loco pilots to work overtime is critical to furthering the business interests of the railways, but quite at conflict with its executive tasks,” said Sanjay Pandhi of the Indian Railways Loco Running Men Organisation.

In this scenario it is no surprise that the Anil Kakodkar committee report, recommending the setting up of an independent safety authority, has been gathering dust.