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Opinion | Tragedy of Indian Railways: Suresh Prabhu Walks the Talk, But That’s Not Enough

As I had just vented out my anger on social media, I got news that railway minister Suresh Prabhu had already asked Chairman Railway Board (CRB) for swift probe and strict action. But no one expected the speed and decisiveness with which action was taken against entire chain of command which was found to responsible for negligence.

Akhileshwar Sahay |

Updated:January 9, 2018, 6:06 PM IST
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Opinion | Tragedy of Indian Railways: Suresh Prabhu Walks the Talk, But That’s Not Enough
File Photo of Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu. Photo: Reuters
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It was around 5pm on August 20 when Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu was sitting diagonally opposite me on a flight at Mumbai Airport. As he alighted, two things struck me. First was his simplicity as he carried the cabin luggage of not only himself but also his wife. The second was the absolute calm on his face.

The news that Utkal Express had derailed near a non-descript station, Khatauli, was in the making then. Within minutes, TV channels went live with the news that 22 people were killed and more than 200 were injured in the derailment.

It must have made Prabhu angry and sad. I was instantly reminded of a promise he had publicly made a few month ago about fixing responsibility at the highest level for accidents.

“Train accidents happen. Innocents die. Culprits go Scot free. Suresh Prabhu- where is thy Zero Tolerance Policy,” I tweeted.

As I had just vented out my anger on social media, I got news that the railway minister had already asked Chairman Railway Board (CRB) for swift probe and strict action. But no one expected the speed and decisiveness with which action was taken against entire chain of command which was found to responsible for negligence.

And what a decision it has been — “Member (engineering), General Manager (Northern Railway) and Divisional Railway Manager (Delhi) have been sent on leave. Chief Track Engineer has been transferred. And those at the ground, Senior Divisional Engineer, Assistant Engineer and two Sectional Engineers have been suspended”.

In my experience of many decades as a railway man, as well as a member of commentariat on la-affaire Indian Railways, I have not seen such decisive and timely action.

Well there are nay-sayers too. How can you hold Member, GM and DRM accountable for an accident? There have also been violent protests from railway men on social media as to why the buck should not stop at Chairman Railway Board.

Others, particularly political dispensations in the opposition, have asked for the head of Prabhu himself.

I wish the matter was that simple.

To me, the minister has fired the first salvo — ‘status quo will not be tolerated and the days of short-cuts are over’. It also resonates with the latest exhortation of Prime Minister from the Red Fort that the “chalta hai” attitude has to be banished from the nation.

But make no mistake, Mr Railway Minister, your decisive actions are just baby steps. They are just scratching the surface. Accidents are symptoms. The malaise is much deeper and the cancer is fast reaching terminal stage. Railway, as an institution, ceased to work as ‘Gestalt of a composite whole’. I do remember you telling me that you were ‘going to silos and fiefdoms’.

As of today, I can palpably see nine silos, celebrating the trauma of the 10th silo — “The Engineering Department”. But no one is trying to do a “root cause analysis” and take at least the following decisive steps.

I am afraid, your decisive action may result merely in Pyrrhic victory. In fact, it may even result in defeat unless composite actions are not taken. And your time starts now, Mr Prabhu.

Firstly, the present state of railways infrastructure (both fixed and moving) has reached such nadir that the whole system is in perpetual danger of slipping into hepatic-coma, from where there will be no point of return. The time for patch work, short-cuts and ‘chalta hai’ attitude is over. Now is the time for wholesale action on infrastructure upgradation and modernization.

Secondly, the safety in Indian Railways, enigmatically, is no one’s baby. Truly speaking, whatever exists in the name of safety organization is woefully short of requirement, perpetually devoid of proactive ideas and actions and sadly, historically, the worst category of railways officers have been dumped there.

Simply put, being posted as a safety officer is more of a punishment, and such officers neither have morale nor the necessary infrastructure and manpower to deliver.

Thirdly and finally, it has been five years since the submission of report of High-level Safety Committee headed by noted scientist Dr Anil Kakodkar. Half a decade is a substantive period to implement all the key recommendations of the committee. Sadly, not even half-hearted attempts have started on taking implementations to the logical conclusion.

The most important recommendation of the Kakodkar Committee was regarding setting up new safety architecture — Independent Rail Safety Authority on lines of the British Rail. Yours truly, had assisted Dr. E. Sreedharan, Special Advisor to the Committee, in crafting the necessity and blueprint of the Rail Safety Authority. The present system of Commissioner Rail System is grossly inadequate as CRS gets into actions largely only when line is to be opened or when an accident happens. Time to change the safety architecture is running out.

The author is a former IRAS (Indian Railway Accounts Service) officer.
| Edited by: Ashish Yechury
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