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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 24, June 10, 2023

Letter to the Readers, Mainstream, June 10, 2023

Friday 9 June 2023


Letter to the Readers, Mainstream, June 10, 2023

Misplaced priorities & lack of accountability

On June 2, 2023, a huge railway accident happened in Balasore, Odisha state, which caused 288 deaths and 1100 injuries — making it one of the biggest such accidents in recent times. A large number of the victims were migrant workers and labouring poor [1]. Railways continue to act as a lifeline for millions, but the system is crowded and under stress. Accidents may have decreased compared to the past but happen routinely on the Railways — there have been 2000 train incidents between the years 2017 and 2021. But they don’t remain in the public memory since the news cycle moves on. The big draw for media attention in the past year or more is the Prime Minister inaugurating the semi-high speed ‘Vande Bharat’ trains here and there and also the occasional mention of the very expensive Bullet train project or the numerous projects to redevelop the old train stations into fancier places akin to shopping arcades. These glitzy projects seem to be hogging a chunk of the Railways budget, while there is understaffing, underspending on the basics of maintenance of train tracks, faulty signaling equipment, and low staffing on safety & reduction in the number of inspections [2] [3] [4]. There are 300,000 unfilled jobs in the railways, and the locally developed anti-train collision system has only been installed on just 4% of the rail network since 2011. The railway unions have been raising alarm over safety since they face higher workloads due to the vacant posts. Safety must become a priority. The 2012 Kakodkar Committee had proposed the creation of an independent railway safety agency, maybe that is an idea whose time has come.

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On June 4, 2023, an expensive four-lane bridge, being built in Bihar over the Ganga river between Bhagalpur and Khagaria collapsed for the second time resulting in huge waste of public money. Faulty design and bad construction have been described as the cause.

Not long ago in October 2022 a colonial-era pedestrian suspension bridge in the city of Morbi in Gujarat collapsed leading to 135 deaths. Lapses in repairs and maintenance of the bridge were the cause.

In September 2022 there was gigantic flooding in Bengaluru city, due to inadequate drainage.

Major road building or real estate projects are hastily approved and constructed without structural inspections, building norm checks, or safety monitoring.

Accidents will keep happening everywhere in Railways, on buildings, on highways, boat mishaps on rivers, and in factories – till safety becomes a priority. Contractors, officials, and Politicians who bend rules, make compromises with public spending, and put public safety at risk should be made to pay. In more decent times Ministers in charge of Railways or whichever department used to resign when grave accidents happened during their tenure, but nowadays you can get away with the slogan shouting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ (Heil Mother India!).

June 10, 2023 —HK

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