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Why Union Raiway minister Vaishnaw needs 'close citizen monitoring'

By Rosamma Thomas* 

At least 13 people died when two trains collided in West Bengal on Monday, June 17, 2024. Just days before this crash, former bureaucrat Ashwini Vaishnaw was sworn in for the second time as Union Minister for Railways. On May 28, 2024, The Hindu newspaper carried an edit page article by K Balakesari, former member of the Railway Board, indicating why this minister might need special and careful monitoring by alert citizens.
On October 29, 2023, two passenger trains collided on the Howrah-Chennai line, leading to the death of 14 passengers and two railway staff. Fifty passengers were injured. The Commissioner of Railway Safety conducted the mandatory enquiry after the accident, and concluded in a report submitted in November 2023 that the accident was caused by “errors in train working”.
In March 2024, however, the Union Minister for Railways announced to the media that an inquiry by railway officials a day after the accident revealed that the attention of members of the railway crew was taken up by a cricket match they were watching on a mobile phone. The minister added that the railways would acquire systems that would be able to capture such distraction of the staff and ensure that loco pilots stayed focused on the job at hand.
Balakesari, the author of the article in The Hindu", acquired a copy of the preliminary report submitted by the Commissioner of Railway Safety through Right to Information, and found no mention of the distraction of railway staff – quite the contrary, the CRS report mentioned that ten minutes before the collision, the loco pilot of the rear train had performed nine different operations – nearly one every minute – in a desperate attempt to avert the accident. He had been supremely alert.
Balakesari mentions that the final CRS report reiterates the conclusions of the preliminary report. The railways later withdrew a circular cautioning about such lapses. The former railway board member wonders if the whole operation, the lies about the cricket match, were an attempt to plant a red herring – an attempt to draw attention away from the main point. Watching a cricket match could be blamed on lower level staff of the railways, while laxity in observing rules of train operation pointed to ineffective monitoring and improper training.
Balakesari, in typical bureaucratic understatement, points to the “surprising lack of professionalism in the Railways” that this episode exposes; it is surely worse than a mere lack of professionalism for a Union minister of Railways to throw his own staff under the bus!
Balakesari also points to other instances where accidents were narrowly averted – on February 25, 2024, a “pilotless train” loaded with stone ballast, went down a gradient at Kathua station in the Northern Railways for about 70 km! The runaway train was routed through unoccupied lines before being stopped, so no accident occurred. A Right to Information application that Balakesari filed in this matter was denied, but media reports indicated that the locopilots had been working beyond their assigned hours of work. 
Instead of being allowed to return to their base stations, the loco pilots were instructed to park their trains and proceed by a passenger train. The loco pilots had little time to ensure that the train was securely parked, as the train they needed to get on to at the end of their duty had already arrived on the platform. The most severe punishment was meted out to the staff for this lapse – summary removal of the pilots and the station master.
Locopilots are overworked and get insufficient rest, as articles published in September 2023 on The Wire website have shown. Several vital tasks have been sub-contracted, and standards have been compromised in the process. Trains were earlier checked after running 400 km; of late, trains run long distances without being checked all through the route. Locopilots and guards have no formal training in checking trains, and yet have had to shoulder this responsibility. Labour historian Zaen Alkazi, who authored the articles on The Wire, mentions that one locopilot felt the whole operation ran at the mercy of God, with little human supervision.
Other categories of railway employees too, including those engaged in hazardous work, have been at the receiving end of the niggardliness of the Union Railway Ministry in the past decade. In May 2021, the media reported that thousands of employees engaged in cleaning tasks and hazardous work in the Railways would have excess money paid as risk allowance withdrawn; excess money already paid would be recovered – in many cases, amounts as tiny as Rs75 per month!
In January 2024, an RTI application revealed that the Union government was releasing Rs6.25 lakh for permanent 3D selfie booths at railway stations where passengers could get themselves photographed with a cut-out that resembled Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The government was spending over Rs1.5 crore on such booths! Just seven months into his tenure, the public relations officer who made this disclosure was abruptly transferred.
India is a recipient of a World Bank loan of US$245 million for upgrading freight operations, which are the big revenue earner for the Railways. Passenger trains are becoming more expensive for ordinary commuters, especially as the Railways reduces the number of sleeper coaches and increases AC ones. In November 2023, at the peak of the festive rush ahead of Diwali, a stampede occurred at the Surat Railway Station that claimed one life.
Railways is the largest landholder among the Union ministries, and in recent years, has been in the news for forcible eviction of settlements deemed to be illegal. The Supreme Court has intervened, to examine the rights of occupants and prevent forcible eviction of a large number of families. Sarva Sewa Sangh, a Gandhian organization, also lost its eight-acre site close to the Ganga in Varanasi, even though documents showing that the land was purchased from the Railways in 1960 were available.
The record of the Union Ministry of Railways in serving India’s people has been far from sterling; under such circumstances, it is hard to fathom how one man, so inadequate, can shoulder the responsibility for such an important ministry while also serving as the Union minister for electronics and information technology and for information and broadcasting.
---
*Freelance journalist 

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