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LOSING TRACK

Embarrassment makes politicians vocal, although it does not make them work. The Union railways minister and his deputy, Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav, Ms Mamata Banerjee and Mr L.K. Advani are the most prominent among the politicians who have burst into speech with the tragedy of the Howrah-Delhi Rajdhani Express. The railways minister, Mr Nitish Kumar, had started off by crying sabotage, as is his habit with every major train accident. He did the same when the Shramjeevi Express derailed four months ago, although later inquiry found the cause in human error. Mr Kumar’s agenda is simple. He will not resign; it is someone else’s fault. Ms Banerjee is back on track with her objections to railway bifurcation, railway officials are loudly proclaiming their meticulousness in maintenance, the police insist there is no sabotage, Mr Yadav talks about the poor condition of bridges — and so it goes on. But the only question that needs an answer is rather plain: how many more lives must be lost before something serious is done about railway safety' No one attempts to answer this because the railways have become too highly politicized for loss of ordinary lives to matter. There is no other explanation for the barefaced callousness and insensitive buck-passing among politicians and officials after every train accident.

It is not enough to point out that members of the public, paying higher fares than ever before, have no idea how the money in the Rs 17,000 crore railway safety fund set up by the prime minister has been used. Or whether it has been used at all. The last is a valid question, since history shows that nothing, or very little, is ever done about recommendations by expert committees. One factor in the Rajdhani accident was the bridge, although inquiry alone will reveal whether this was an operative factor in the tragedy. The railways’ record of bridge maintenance is definitely inadequate, and its list of “distressed” bridges never quite makes the mark, as was proved by the Mangalore-Madras Mail accident in Kozhikode last year. The railway safety review committee’s 1999 recommendations about the inspection of old bridges have been largely ignored. But this is just one factor. It is no longer possible to accept without question that the tracks were in as perfect a condition as the railway officials would have people believe. The fact that the Sealdah Express had passed safely over the same stretch 20 minutes earlier means nothing in terms of maintenance. The inquiry that will follow is routine, the question is what the administration is going to do with the findings.

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