Jan 23, 2017

Railway accidents: Here's how Suresh Prabhu compromised on safety last year

There seems to be no let up in railway accidents taking place in last few months in the country, with the Hirakhand Express train mishap in Andhra Pradesh being the latest that claimed 39 passengers' lives on Sunday. Although railways has been hinting at a possible sabotage behind this mishap, the series of accidents in recent times also raises serious questions about the lack of thrust on improving safety.
Although, Minister of Railways Suresh Prabhu has been talking of transforming the Indian Railways into a world class transport system and has promised huge fund infusion towards the same in recent years. The ministry, however, looks clueless when it comes to taking stand on the safety aspect.
So, what is the reason for failing to take tough measures in improving the safety infrastructure? According to a report in the Business Standard, Suresh Prabhu may have compromised on the safety aspect to showcase a strong Railway budget last year. In order to present better financial health, Prabhu may have trimmed allocation of funds for the Depreciation Reserve Fund (DRF). The term DRF indicates replacement of crucial assets, including railway tracks for which his department had undertaken nearly 60 percent cut in allocation in the current fiscal year (2016-17) budget at Rs 3,200 crore as against the budgeted figure of Rs 7,900 crore in 2015-16.

Representational image. AFP

"Repeated accidents show there are maintenance issues with tracks and rolling stock," the Business Standard report said, quoting Shanti Narayan, a former member of the railway board.

While 14 coaches of Indore-Patna Express were derailed claiming 150 lives on 20 November, 15 coaches of the Sealdah-Ajmer Express got derailed on 28 December injuring 50 passengers near Kanpur.

In fact, the railways has also failed to fill the crucial posts for safety staff across the country, which is a serious cause of concern and highlights a clear case of neglect and apathy.

As per the record of India's East Coast Railway, there is a 24 percent vacancy in safety official roles, said a report in The Times of India.

Across India, 1.42 lakh posts for safety staff have not been filled by the government, raising serious concerns over the safety neglect part.

In the East Coast Railway, the government has filled 4,827 posts as against sanctioned strength of 6,398 engineering staff posts.

"The pressure on crucial safety staff has remained very high over the years and this has also been pointed out in various internal reports over the years. Not only are there huge vacancies but the existing staff work under sub-standard conditions," the ToI report quoted a retired senior official from SCR as saying.

There are reports that the government may be looking to pump in funds over and above the budgeted allocation for undertaking the safety upgrades in this budget.

For this, the special fund, Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK), is likely to see Rs 1 lakh crore capital infusion spread over a five-year period, a report in The Indian Express said.

This year, the government has decided to club railway budget with the Union Budget scheduled to be unveiled on 1 February. The finance ministry has already set aside Rs 55,000 crore as gross budgetary support for Railways for the next financial year 2017-18. For the safety fund, the first installment of Rs 20,000 crore will be paid from the budgeted amount, while the rest will be used for the normal capital expenditure.

However, the report suggests that of the Rs 55,000 crore earmarked for the railways, Rs 15,000 crore will go into special safety fund, while the remaining Rs 5,000 crore would be borne by the railways.

According to a report in Mint, Railways is looking at spending Rs 1.3 lakh crore as capital expenditure in the next financial year.

“The railway ministry has sought a gross budgetary support of Rs 60,000 crore from the Union budget and we are hopeful to get around Rs55,000 crore which is an increase of approximately 20%,” Mint repot said quoting a senior railway board official.

Last years PhillipCapital report said the country's Railways will require around $53 billion capital to undertake pending projects and network decongestion orders over FY17-FY20. - Firstpost