The Odisha Train Crash Was the Terrible Cost of Ignoring CAG Audits

At the fag end of winter session, on December 20-22, 17 audit reports were tabled in parliament. What concerns can the opposition raise when the Union government plans to table the CAG audit reports in the last week of the parliament session?

On December 21, 2022, a performance review of derailment in the Indian Railways was presented in parliament. This thematic performance audit undertaken by the national auditor examined instances of derailments between 2017-18 to 2020-21.

Months after that report alerting the Rail Ministry about passenger safety entered the public domain, on June 2, 2023, another derailment resulted in 275 deaths and left 1,100 injured. While the media has picked up the audit findings, this incident also alerts us to what’s broken in India’s parliamentary process of transparency, accountability and auditing.

The first question that demands an answer is: couldn’t this audit report have entered the public domain earlier?

The audit report mentions that after the draft audit report was ready, an exit conference was held in June 2022 at the Railway Board level to discuss audit findings. The report was finalised a few months later, in the first week of September 2022, with the Deputy CAG signing it on September 5 and the CAG of India countersigning it the next day. As per information available on the CAG of India website, the report was shared with the Union Government on September 9. The winter session of Parliament started on December 7, 2022.

At the fag end of winter session, on December 20-22, 17 audit reports were tabled in parliament. What concerns can the opposition raise when the Union government plans to table the CAG audit reports in the last week of the parliament session?

Also read: CAG Report on Derailments Hard to Square With PMO Claims on Prioritising Rail Safety

The audit report has a chapter devoted to discussing concerns raised by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways (Twelfth Report on Safety and Security in Railways and Fifteenth Report on Action Taken Notes filed by Ministry of Railways). This aspect itself should have urged the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways to take up this thematic audit report on derailment for early discussion. While the Standing Committee has met three times (on Feb 21, March 6 and May 25) when this audit report was in the public domain, the first two meetings discussed Demand for Grants for the fiscal 2023-24. In its third meeting this year, the subject on the agenda was a Briefing by representatives of the Ministry of Railways & Railway Board on ‘Safety Measures in Railway Operations’.

Did the Standing Committee study the CAG of India’s Performance Audit report on Derailment in Indian Railways and seek Action Taken Notes from the Ministry and Railway Board representatives? Parliamentary committee chair Radha Mohan Singh, do tell us the status and if the committee has not taken up the report for study and discussion, when does it intend to do so?

Another crucial question that begs an honest answer is whether the Public Accounts Committee has taken up this Performance Audit report on Derailment in Indian Railways for discussion. On the committee’s webpage, we find that as recently as on February 22 this year, another audit paragraph related to Indian Railways was under discussion. However, that audit paragraph (Para 3.11) was from Report No 22 of 2021. Will parliamentary committee chair Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury please take this up on priority?

The CAG audit report had also underlined the issue of non-response to audit queries:

“The information in respect of Outcomes of the Rashtriya Rail Sanrakshan Kosh (RRSK) outlays had been called for (February 2022). The reply of the Ministry was awaited (July 2022)”.

Between July 2022 and September 2022, the CAG would have pursued the matter and the very fact that no such reply has been recorded in the audit report shows callousness about the queries raised by representatives of the supreme auditor. Its constitutional duties are brazenly and routinely undermined by the executive.

Also read: Odisha Train Crash: Dissent Note By Probe Panel Member Hints at Coverup

The CAG audit report made four recommendations to ensure necessary follow-up action:

“1. Indian Railways should ensure strict adherence to the scheduled timeline for conducting and finalisation of accident inquiries.

2. Indian Railways may develop a strong monitoring mechanism to ensure timely implementation of maintenance activities by adopting fully mechanised methods of track maintenance and improved technologies.

3. Railway administration must follow the guiding principles for deployment of RRSK funds to avoid fund constraints in the area of Priority I works.

4. Indian Railways may prepare the Detailed Outcome Framework for each item of safety work as per the indicative outcomes to gauge whether the benefits derived out of the RRSK funds are in conformity with the objectives behind the creation of the Fund.”

Will the honourable minister please state what follow-up actions have been ensured on these four recommendations?

Similarly, CAG of India’s offices in charge of the auditing task in different zones should compile Action Taken Notes and replies filed by the zonal authorities on audit concerns voiced in this performance audit report and make it available to the office of Commissioner of Railway Safety. If there is absolute inaction, the zonal audit offices note this and issue a status report to the Commissioner of Railway Safety. Simultaneously, the concerned offices should consider sharing these Action Taken Notes and replies (or at the least the status report on the replies and ATNs awaited) with citizens, in the interest of transparency.

The CAG of India should also take up a follow-up performance audit report on derailments in Indian Railways for 2021-2025, and consider making this a regular feature.

Himanshu Upadhyaya is assistant professor at the School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

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.