The sight on the railway platforms at Sealdah and Patna, hundreds of miles apart, is strikingly similar – a staggering number of people scrambling, jostling and fighting with one another in a mad rush to occupy unreserved train compartments.
In the entire Eastern, North Eastern and North Central railway zones – the most dense and saturated network of the Indian Railways –there are trains departing from the same track approximately every five minutes. Every other train that goes clattering along on these routes has a large number of passengers perched atop roofs of compartments.
In several incidents in the past, such passengers have met a gory end, either crushed under over-bridges or electrocuted by overhead cables or simply falling off of running trains. A legitimate question therefore is: What have the railways done to meet its “social commitment” of providing for safe and affordable travel for Indian masses?
Ground realities are uninspiring. Against the stated policy of attaching at least six general sleeper (GS) coaches (for unreserved travel), the actual numbers have fluctuated between 2 or 3 coaches in each passenger train.
Despite observations made in reports of the commissioner of railway safety (CRS) that shortage of GS coaches was leading to over-crowding and passenger deaths, the focus of the state-owned coach manufacturing units has been towards manufacturing AC-3 compartments which fetch better revenues. With a large number of coaches sent for repairs, maintenance or are otherwise over-aged, the railways is currently estimated to have a shortage of 2,000 GS coaches. With an inventory of approximately 50,000 coaches, the railways have projected an additional requirement of 33,066 coaches over the next two years.
The requirement being far greater than the manufacturing capabilities of the production units of the Indian Railways and Bharat Earth Movers Limited (a PSU of the ministry of defence), the railways had floated open tenders for the procurement of 500 GS coaches in 2012-13. The tender has not been awarded so far.
Sitting on his haunches amidst the dirt and noise of the Patna railway station, 62-year-old Ram Vriksh makes a telling comment. “Aap logon ke liye AC, khan-paan, and daktar-dawai. Hum ek jagah se doosre jinda pahuch jaye to bahut hai” (The comforts of AC travel, good food and service of doctors are for you people. We are happy with just reaching our destination alive). The CAG’s theme-based audit report on the blueprint of the plan of the North Central Railways to de-congest high density network routes from 2007-08 to 2010-11 seems to bear out Ram Vriksha’s perceptions.
Of the total of 87 contracts for doubling/tripling works awarded during the period, only 45 were completed within the stipulated timeframe, 69 were completed with delays ranging between 1 and 71 months, while the remaining are still shuffling along. Certain contracts were foreclosed for non-performance and work was re-awarded to the same contractor after months.
In the last three years, the Kolkata-based Eastern Railways have undertaken doubling works worth Rs. 728 crore but utilised just Rs. 6 crore. The East Central Railways undertook 5 such projects, spending just Rs. 2 crore, while the North Central Railway spent Rs. 41 crore of the total estimated cost of Rs. 797 crore for the doubling work on the Bhimsen-Jhansi route.
“Today’s need is to undertake doubling/tripling works to de-congest existing networks. But focus of past railway ministers have been on big-bang announcements,” said a Hajipur-based East Central Railways official.