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Off the rails once again

Mamata Banerjee seemed to have all the answers almost as soon as details of the stampede that claimed two lives at New Delhi railway station trickled in. But the truth is, stop looking for scapegoats for Sunday’s stampede. Instead, fix the infrastructure.

india Updated: May 17, 2010 22:52 IST

Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee seemed to have all the answers almost as soon as details of the stampede that claimed two lives at New Delhi railway station trickled in. It could be sabotage, it could be rumours, she asserted even as she ordered a high-level inquiry into the matter. Underlying her defence of her stewardship of this crucial ministry was an attempt to pass the blame onto the people who ran helter-skelter on Sunday when a sudden change in platform for two trains was announced. She also told us, as if we did not know, that there is a summer rush on at the moment. From the normal number of 3.5 lakh passengers from Delhi, at least five lakh use the railways from the capital daily in the summer. In such circumstances, every effort should have been made to improve crowd management.

In 2004, there was a stampede at New Delhi railway station after which measures were to have been put in place to avoid such mishaps in future. Nothing was done. Now we agree with Ms Banerjee that the administration alone cannot be held responsible for such freak accidents. However, as the minister in charge, she and her officials are responsible for safety arrangements and crowd regulation. For example, given the summer rush, many trains, especially the eastbound ones, could have departed from other stations in the capital, thereby relieving the pressure on New Delhi station. After the unfortunate incident, the victims could not access first-aid or even drinking water. The minister, a proponent of the cause of the common man, surely knows that millions rely on the trains as their lifeline. Her ministry should have initiated steps to make rail travel smooth for passengers. Sadly, she appears more preoccupied with politics in her home state than with improving the image of the railways.

The success of the railways cannot be measured in terms of revenue collection alone as was done previously. It has also to be measured in terms of quality and safety for those who use it. However, we have seen that barring a few exceptions, ministers tend to focus on adding new stops for trains, increasing the number of trains to their constituencies and adding in local dishes to the menu now and again. The crumbling infrastructure of the railways is routinely overlooked with disastrous consequences. Instead of seeking to apportion blame, it would be useful if the minister and her officials were to take remedial measures now that this tragedy has occurred. But past experience suggests that

once this incident has moved away from the headlines, the ministry will continue to be on the wrong track it has been for a very long time.