Thursday, July 22, 2010

Another rail disaster: what comes next?

India woke up from uneasy dreams to witness one more devastating train accident on Monday. This time it was at Sainthia in Bengal’s Birbhum district where the Uttar Banga Express entered platform No. 4 at a speed of about 80 to 90 kmph and ran into the Vananchal Express from behind which was just rolling out off the station. The impact of the fatal collision was so huge that a coach of Vananchal Express was tossed over on a nearby pedestrian footbridge. Sixty-three passengers were announced to be officially dead, numerous has suffered severe injuries. In past one year, this is the sixth major accident. The total number of deceased from rail accidents in the last fourteen months, as put forward by various media reports, has reached a whopping 428. Only since April this year, the figure is a shocking 250. The alarming rise of railway accidents in the country (more than 162 accidents since Miss Mamata Banerjee took over the charge of the Railways ministry, 40 accidents since April 2010) has made the entire nation feel extremely vulnerable and apprehensive about a safe rail travel. But the out of the ordinary minister of Railways and her top notch officials seems to be quite unaffected by the frequent accidents. The minister, being suspicious about the cause of the accident, had assured to “take strong steps against those who are behind this,” obviously hinting towards a sabotage.

There are a lot of unanswered question regarding the nature of the accident, many of which points at the two drivers of the Uttar Banga Express – both now dead. Why were they driving at such a high speed when they were approaching a station for a scheduled stop? Why did they violate the signal which the signal in-charge of the Sainthia station had claimed was surely showing “red”? Why did the drivers not apply the emergency brakes to halt the train? There was no visible sign of abnormality in their appearances at the previous halt Gadadharpur, just 10 km away from Sainthia. What can happen to them after they had left Gadadharpur? Were they somehow been “incapacitated”? Most of these suspicions were first put forward by the Railway Board Chairman Vivek Sahay who “did not rule out the possibility of ‘sabotage’ leading to the train crash,” (Source) and has termed the accident as an “unusual collision”. As per his prima facie investigation, there was “something definitely wrong with the driver.” Sahay’s statement has provided enough ammo for rumor mongers and conspiracy theorists to hatch numerous stories in the public domain.

What the au fait Railway Board Chairman has failed to explain or has deliberately tried to hide is why a fundamental safety procedure in the Railways, the signal interlocking system, has terribly failed in the early hours on Monday. The mechanism of this system ensures that “even if a signal at danger is ignored by the driver, the train will enter a ‘dead end’, i.e. a siding which is built so as to slow down & possibly derail a train. This ensures that, if the signal is at danger, the train does not go ahead & hit the train standing on the straight track.” (Source) Did the signal operator controlling the system’s centralized panel located near the station failed to activate it or did the system itself just didn’t work? If so than Sahay’s charge against the driver’s terrible error is immoral to the core. It is always the easiest to put blame on the lower rank functionaries and make them a scapegoat. In this case, the accused are not even alive to defend them. Sahay in fact has tried too hard to conceal a much larger “conspiracy” which is being carried out by the sheer laxity and abysmal incompetence of the personals in charge of running the Indian Railways network. It is a conspiracy to ruin the “largest rail network in Asia and the world's second largest under one management”. Let Vivek Sahay also justify why it took two and a half hours for the first relief train and seven hours for the second to reach the accident site.

Without wasting much time, Trinamool Congress leaders and sycophants have started harping on the “sabotage” theory. Pointing finger towards the Left Front government, particularly the CPI(M), they have asked why the accidents are happening only in Bengal. Their basic strategy is to push in a simple perception straight into the public mind, that Mamata Banerjee’s political adversaries are in some way or other involved with the accident to discredit her “growing” image. It is the same strategy they had undertook during the previous Gyaneshwari Express disaster that took place less than two months ago. They might be fairly successful in doing so again as there are enough people in Bengal and elsewhere today who are willingly ready to believe anything that goes against the CPI(M). It might be a classic case of public delusion, but certainly a reality.

If this allegation of the cronies is not just a blatant deception but really bear some substance then what are the Railways ministry and the central government doing about it? The people of India want to see some evidence. What about the other accidents that is happening in regular intervals outside Bengal? What has happened to Mamata Banerjee’s “zero tolerance to accidents” promise she had announced in Parliament under the Vision 2020 project? What has been done about the ingeniously designed and developed anti-collision device (ACD) and the train protection warning systems (TPWS) which the Railways minister in her budget speech has assured to implement during this year?

After every rail disaster outside her home state, Mamata Banerjee has shown little or no interest to reach the accident sites stating that VIP visits create additional problem for the rescue team. However, if the accident happens in Bengal, she not only rushes to the spot but also instantaneously smells “sabotage” and unleashes her cronies and client scribes to create a hullaballoo over it. She selectively skips cabinet meetings on issues which she thinks will be politically risky for her future career but finds enough time to pursue the finance minister of India to get an Asian Development Bank loan for Kolkata Municipal Corporation which her party has recently captured. In September last year she had even skipped a cabinet meeting which was to decide on a crucial proposal seeking a Rs 17,700 crore Japanese loan to fund Indian Railways’ Western Dedicated Freight Corridor. (Source) She has virtually converted the Indian Railways into a charitable organization and proposed to build hospitals, schools, theatre and sports complexes, flyovers and museums. But all her populist concerns are only for Bengal. She is less concerned on the shortage of staff in the Railways which includes 20 percent shortage of drivers and 90,000 vacancies of safety staff but is absolutely obsessed about announcing new trains, again mostly in Bengal.

In a party rally today, Mamata Banerjee did not utter a single word of condolence for the dead passengers or the injured victims of the Sainthia disaster. Instead, a vivacious and jaunty Railways minister was trying her best to fit into the role of Bengal’s next chief minister, filling the Kolkata air with a stream of high pitched promises, warning government employees and police officers to work “impartially” or be ready to face the consequences. She accused the CPI(M) for “planning sabotage” and trying to spoil the Railways reputation by “letting cockroaches into food”! (Source)

As a cabinet minister of this country, she is culpable for this callous, apathetic, subjective and self-serving attitude. She is clearly been driven by her priorities in Bengal, not showing interest about anything that does not fit into her short-term populist agenda. The Congress Party is maintaining a sly wait and watch approach and often intently flattering her in the hope to gain in Bengal by riding on her bandwagon. What will the Congress spin doctors do with her if she fails to delivers at the Bengal Assembly elections next year?

If Bengal really deserves a leader of her caliber, let it be. But why the entire country has to bear the brunt?