Need for Speed Has Taken Focus off Rail Safety

The semi-high speed Vande Bharat Express, or similar such trophies, could be yet another predictable idea of the Modi government for pumping up the sentiment of national prestige, but should such propaganda entirely displace critical issues at hand?

An accident as deadly and heartbreaking as the Balasore train crash rarely becomes an occasion to flag the banality of high-pitched advertising campaigns.

Yet, the death of over 275 people in the biggest train mishap over two decades has spawned discussions around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flashy PR drive about semi-high speed Vande Bharat Expresses, or even the first Indian bullet train, at a time when his government should have ideally addressed the structural problems that have afflicted the Indian Railways for years.

It took a catastrophic disaster like the collision of two passenger trains to draw our attention to concerns like antiquated safety mechanisms, failing infrastructure, vacancies at all levels, and poor and inadequate budgeting that railway officials and official bodies have been flagging from time to time, even as the Modi government marked out flagship trains like Vande Bharat Express as the new benchmarks in the history of the railways’ development.

The government’s PR exercises shored up its claims about large-scale and speedy infrastructure development under Modi’s leadership, but also overshadowed persistent issues that plagued the Indian railways. For the government, perception mattered more than a structural overhaul that could have possibly prevented the Balasore human tragedy, and similar such incidents, over the last few years.

Train accidents in the past have drawn attention to the humble concerns of the railways, forcing the governments to attend to some of these teething problems, even if momentarily. However, even these temporary noises seem to have disappeared amidst the Modi government’s hyperbolic campaigns around BJP’s brand of cultural nationalism that unabashedly seek to drown out any criticism.

Consider a few instances where priorities of the Indian Railways were either sidelined or kept off the table. As recently as February 2023, a top railway official in the South Western Railway zone raised concerns about frequent signal failures and said that such malfunctioning could lead to serious accidents. The Balasore train mishap, we know now, is a result of a similar signal failure.

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A recent CAG report also pointed out that two-thirds of all rail accidents between 2017-18 and 2020-21 happened because of derailments ― which is how the Chennai-bound Coromandel Express jumped off its tracks to ram into the static goods train. The report also showed that the budgetary allocations for urgent infrastructure development like track renewal to handle increasing traffic and improvement in safety mechanisms have been on the decline during Modi’s tenure. The government’s much-vaunted anti-collision device system KAVACH, too, is agonisingly under funded, and over 90% routes have not been equipped to use the feature.

The Modi government’s inclination to override official mechanisms has been so overwhelming that the Balasore disaster appears to be yet another corollary of the government’s neglect of railway safety concerns. The 323rd report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism, and Culture had pointed out grave disregard shown by the Railway Boards towards the recommendations of the Commission of Railway Safety.

At a more basic level, a series of RTI responses revealed that over 3 lakh positions at every level of the railways are lying vacant. This also explains why current employees are forced to work 12-14 hour shifts.

As The Wire’s founding editor M.K. Venu said, the Balasore mishap is a reminder that Modi’s mantra of “speed and scale” must be calibrated to deliver “safety first”, especially in critical infrastructure like aviation, roads, bridges, and railways. The grave accident, in fact, highlights the widening gap between the Modi government’s priorities ― often geared towards scoring political brownie points over the opposition ― and real issues that desperately need attention.

The semi-high speed Vande Bharat Express, or similar such trophies, could be yet another predictable idea of the Modi government for pumping up the sentiment of national prestige, but should such propaganda entirely displace critical issues at hand?

Even as this question looms large, the Union government has yet again resorted to virtue-signalling. Facing the heat at the moment, the Prime Minister, Union Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw and other BJP leaders have attempted to control the political narrative through social media campaigns that seek to showcase the government’s dedication and selflessness in the rescue efforts. The out-of-the-blue claims made by some BJP leaders about the accident being a potential case of sabotage by the left-wing extremists, and Vaishnaw’s swift recommendation for the CBI to probe the mishap, appear to be more attempts by the government to divert attention from its gross failures.

It is high time that the Modi government trains its focus on the urgent concerns of the Indian railways with some seriousness, instead of treating the human tragedy as a mere hurdle in its political campaign ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.