Jan 31, 2017

Strong railway, strong India. But do we care?

In the early hours of November 23 in 1956, a train accident at Ariyalur, a town not very far from Thanjavur, killed 142 people and injured 110. Lal Bahadur Shastri, Railway Minister at the time, took moral responsibility for the mishap and resigned. Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister, forwarded his resignation to the President.
Sixty years later, on November 20 last year, a train accident near Kanpur killed nearly 150 people. And within 60 days, last Saturday, at least 40 passengers died when a train derailed in Andhra Pradesh. No one resigned, no heads rolled. Instead, fingers were pointed at Pakistan’s ISI and Maoists.

The truth is 60 years is long enough for those in power to grow a thick skin — and also for people to become insensitive to such tragedies. I mean, how does it matter to us if 100 or 150 die in a train accident somewhere in Kanpur or Odisha or wherever, as long as we were not travelling in the ill-fated train? Today, what matters to us is who said what — and not who did what.

Our world turns upside down if a has-been BJP leader called Vinay Katiyar says that his party boasts of prettier women than Priyanka Gandhi. We feel betrayed if Aamir Khan says that his wife thinks India has become unsafe for them to live. We find it funny when Rahul Gandhi announces at a public meeting that he, unlike Narendra Modi, wears a torn kurta. I can think of countless evenings when utterances by public and even not-so-public figures have made national headlines and sparked raging debates on social media.

Almost no one spared a thought for the 150 lives lost near Kanpur. The news was forgotten the day after. How did the accident happen? How could such accidents be prevented? Most importantly: what exactly is the Government doing to ensure safety of rail passengers? Questions like these — which matter because they concern human lives, including ours — are rarely asked. Since we don’t ask, we don’t get the answers and life goes on — until another few dozen lives are lost.

But CNN, in a detailed report, raised these questions after last Saturday’s accident in Andhra Pradesh. From the report, I got to know things that I should have known but didn’t: that India’s rail network runs 12,000 trains a day; that all the tracks, if joined into one single track, could circle the globe over one-and-a-half times; that 23 million passengers take the train daily, the equivalent of Australia’s population. It quoted former Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi as saying that the Indian railway system needed a generation change. It quoted a White Paper in which current Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu wrote that Indian Railways had suffered from considerable under-investment during the last few years.

The railway is one of the oldest and finest institutions of modern India: the 12,000 trains not only run, but run mostly on time, connecting the remotest corners of the country. Then why “considerable under-investment”? The apathy is evident from the fact that Indian Railways does not even have a brand ambassador, at a time when it has become fashionable for even Government departments to have a celebrity highlighting their work.

All those whose hearts beat for the soldiers on the border should ask themselves: how do the soldiers get there in the first place? No, soldiers don’t fly Air India or Indigo: they take the train. Strong railway, strong India. Let’s see what the 2017 Budget has in store for it. - The Hindu