Reaching the site where the Rajdhani Express met with its worst disaster ever has been a nightmare. The car stopped just a kilometre away, leaving no choice but to trudge through inch-deep mud. Villagers pointed their fingers without being asked: “Rafigunj, out there”. The collapsed bogies, reduced to a heap of junk, would still not be visible. It is only at the Dhawa bridge site that the real magnitude of the tragedy unfolds.
It was a montage of eccentric actions in the first few hours. There were knots of passengers who could barely come out of the compartment still dangling from the heavily tilting train. Unable to see each other in a pitch dark night, they somehow managed to break open the glass window and began screaming to draw attention of the villagers. Soon, lights appeared on the horizon, as men carrying torches came running towards the site.
The eagerness of the villagers to extend every kind of help was in stark contrast with the backwardness of the villages. Wielding old rusty shovels, they went about pulling people out of danger. Unlike any other accident site, where loot of the belongings of the passengers is a corollary to initial village-level rescue operations, the people of at least nine villages surrounding Rafigunj showed exemplary restraint. Not that minor articles were not lifted. But the villagers stood out in their honesty when a group of men caught a local constable hiding a few hundred rupees stolen from a passenger’s briefcase and made him return the money to the railway authorities later. A local backward caste man, Ibrahim Mian, of Keshap village near the accident site, confided that this was only because the “lalsalamwallahs keep watch on us”.
In the middle of the general horror and pandemonium came political pronouncements and counter-rhetoric over the accident. In a big convoy, the railways minister, Nitish Kumar, arrived at the site while the sun was still below the horizon. By late morning, he had announced the sabotage theory. A large number of Samata Party workers surrounding him shouted slogans while the railway officers were busy displaying to the electronic media fish plates and fish boards which had come loose from the track. There were senior railway officers and technical experts who even pointed towards a specific possibility: the involvement of Naxalites. Nitish Kumar’s announcement of sabotage was bound to stir his political rivals since the railways minister’s theory implied that the state government was to blame for this.
Around 11 am, a helicopter descended on the chaos that was already showing signs of going out of hand. As Laloo Prasad Yadav stepped out of it, a few state government police officers whispered into his ear a new theory: a 90- year old bridge built by the British, unrepaired for years, collapsed to cause the tragedy. Yadav’s demand for Nitish Kumar’s resignation came soon after. And the political rhetoric began to take precedence over rescue work. “In politics what begins in fear usually ends in folly. Nitish’s fear of sabotage will end in folly”, said the Rashtriya Janata Dal national spokesman, Shivanand Tiwari.
The political skulduggery that the Rajdhani Express tragedy sparked off camouflaged the more fundamental issue. Trains like Rajdhani, Shatabdi or Palace-on-Wheels are symbols of state-of-the-art technology and sophistication of packaged tours of the Indian Railways, now entering 150 years of its operations. “India’s superfast, fully airconditioned deluxe trains give you unique opportunity of experiencing Indian Railways at its best” — advertisement slogans for the Rajdhani Express sum this up. Ten years from now, Indian trains might vie with Sydney-Canberra fast train services fitted with digital phones and television services with an exotic touch of the rural.
But these trains rip through villages which are caught in a time warp. In Rafigunj for example, there are no telephones within 20 kms, nor any hospital ready to provide even first aid. The Shramjeevi Express accident in Uttar Pradesh this year and the Ahmedabad Express accident near Champa in Madhya Pradesh had almost the same backdrop. There is no electricity in the villages of the Rafigunj block. Had there been, doctors could have conducted quick operations on the injured passengers . The bridges and railway crossings are ill-maintained. There is a long backlog of bridges which the railways has listed and still not repaired.
Yet, the numbers of Shatabdi and Rajdhani trains are growing. Is it enough to equip the trains with hi-tech facilities and make it run through villages which do not have the most basic of technological amenities' The accident of the Rajdhani Express throws up such questions on the dichotomy of development.
Rafigunj happens to be one of the blocks of Aurangabad district where caste-massacres take place with unfailing regularity. The Dalaichowk and Baghera massacres in the mid-Eighties catapulated Aurangabad to national infamy. The only road that connects GT Road and Rafigunj station was built in the mid-Eighties for help- ing the police enter the areas faster in their vehicles. The road is as good as ruined now. Rafigunj is known as a rice bowl but even this is a problem since poor irrigation facility prevents the farmers from going in for crop diversification.
Some of the city-based industries have struck a blow on the village economy, snatching the livelihood of the artisans. Large numbers of villagers have abandoned their handlooms to turn to stone chip and brick kiln factories. A small section of people who used to work in the transport services have come back home to sit idle because of a protracted transport strike.
About 20 km away from Rafigunj, the prime minister’s ambitious quadrangular road expansion project to connect the four metropolitan cities — Calcutta, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore — is underway but is in a state of limbo owing to severe extortionist activities of the Naxalites. The Naxalites run parallel administration in these villages.
Even if the Rajdhani tragedy has been caused by sabotage, every subversive activity is the result of grievances that have gone unheard. On September 16, Rabri Devi’s power minister, Shakil Ahmed Khan, announced a scheme to provide electricity connections to nine villages near Rafigunj in recognition of their contribution to the relief works.
On a turn of the road near Seogunge on September 14, a man with a fierce moustache on a Rajdoot motorcycle was seen lecturing a gathering of 60-odd villagers near a tea stall. The villagers heard his angry utterances against the politicians who were blaming the Maoist Communist Centre for the tragedy. “The politicians have guided missiles but misguided men”, he was heard saying. Who was he' “Our leader, a comrade”, confessed a villager after a lot of persuasion, long after the comrade had disappeared.