It is tempting to suggest that discourse by public figures in India is beginning to be vastly influenced by the daily soap of shouting and slanging matches on the so-called news channels. Just as the self-opinionated and screaming TV anchors have no qualms in peddling fiction laced with defamatory statements and even straight abuses, the public figures in India do not think twice in using inelegant, false and libellous language for rivals and critics.
Decency has suffered as much as sensibilities. Thus, a chief minister describes protests after the death of 13 children in an accident at an unmanned railway crossing as ‘Nautanki’ (drama), unmindful of the tragedy that befell the families of victims. Instead of commiserating with them, the chief minister upbraids them as though the children deserved their gory and untimely end.
Taking the cue from the chief minister, the top Railway official blames it on the habit of the people who do not look to ‘the right and left’ before going past the railway line at an unmanned crossing. Of course, people must be alert enough to avert collision with a running train at an unmanned crossing. But this habit of ignoring a basic rule while crossing a railway line is observed in breach almost 24 hours on Indian roads.
The point is that civility demands that you don’t start looking for excuses or faults in the victims after a tragedy. The duty to protect the lives of citizens is supreme no matter how disrespectful the victims might have been. It can be argued that the general apathy towards road or rail safety rules results from the failure of the authorities or specifically the law enforcing agency in effectively dealing with the problem.
The Railways have been passing the buck on eradicating unmanned crossings, running into thousands, for long. It is described as one of the many bad legacies from the colonial era. Not to defend the colonial era, but the fact is that in those bad days there were few, if any, incidents of people being killed at unmanned crossings.
It was not because the authorities were strict and the people were certainly not even half as conscious of road rules as they are today. The fact was that there were very few trains running the course of one day and the interval between two trains from one or opposite directions arriving at an unmanned crossing was also very long. People found it easier to take the necessary precaution of avoiding tragedy at the unmanned crossings.
Thanks to populism, the number of trains and the frequency of their running have arisen tremendously in the last few decades. It has made the unmanned crossingsdangerous. There are places and moments when trains seem to be running almost like bumper to bumper traffic of cars. People waiting at the crossings take the risk of crossing the railway track, aware that they could face danger if their sense of anticipation goes wrong.
This is a situation that has acquired serious proportions today. The government or the Railways ought to have taken the matter more seriously than it has. The process of manning the unmanned crossings should have started in right earnest in the 1970s. By now there should have been no unmanned railway crossing in the country.
Now we learn that the Railways will make India free of unmanned crossings by March 2020. This is not the only target of the Railways that will be viewed with scepticism. The Railways have failed to keep pace with essential job of improving infrastructure and safety measures. Why, even the ‘Swatch’ (cleanliness) drive, a much trumpeted programme of the government, has lagged behind, as would be evident from the general unhygienic conditions at railways stations and toilets in the train.
It may not be wrong to look at the problem of unmanned crossings as one related to safety. But what priority is really given to safety by Indian Railways? The spate of railway accidents does not tell a reassuring story. We have been hearing for long that a major cause for railway accidents is ‘human failure’. That may be true but ‘technical’ reasons cannot be ruled out. Again, the point is that though the reasons behind most accidents are known, not enough would seem to have been done to rectify them.
It is hardly a secret that for the current dispensation, the number one priority is the Bullet Train which is to run between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. That India needs not one but may Bullet trains is easily understood, given the long distances in the country. But what we are going to have is a fast train running between two cities, less than 1000 km apart and very well connected by road and rail. The very idea of a Bullet train looks ridiculous when it is known that the Ahmedabad-Mumbai Bullet train will halt at about half a dozen stations which will impede its speed.
There would have been perhaps fewer objections to the introduction of a Bullet Train in the country had it been decided to link all the major metropolitan cities with it. As for funds, Japan could have been persuaded to sanction a larger loan, instead of restricting itself to one Bullet train. Alternatively, the introduction of the Bullet train should have been shelved for a later date.
Howsoever much the government may try to contest it, to most observers it would appear that safety of passengers and the railways itself does not get the priority it deserves. Some of the basic needs for safety like better signalling take years and years to be fulfilled. At human level, what is being done to ensure that the personnel on vital duty, like the engine driver and those watching the tracks, are more alert and attentive at work. Cases of drunkenness and sleeping during duty hours have been reported.
When a big tragedy takes place, the railways find a ‘scapegoat’, though some time ago some senior officials were also ‘punished.’ Of course, there is no question of the man or woman at the very top of the railways, the minister, cannot and will not be asked to quit. The ‘scapegoat’ practice brings no salutary effect and the system continues to work as inefficiently and carelessly as before. Syndicate Features