The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Blackout after body blow

As I sat surveying the chaos at Howrah station from last night to this morning, there was one question that kept leaping back at me: Would I have done any better had I been the railway minister' I choose not to answer this question at this hour of tragedy. But of one thing I am certain: I would not have been as indifferent as the current dispensation appeared to be.

There was virtually an information blackout by the railway administration about the accident late last night. The mishap news came to me as a rude shock and I tried to get a detailed account from different quarters over phone, but could not succeed.

I left my residence for Howrah station after midnight to get a first-hand account of the accident. There was no competent manning of the inquiry counter, indicating a blanket ban on information for unknown reasons. Right from 1.30 am, when I reached the station, till 7.30 am, the only information available at the helpline counter was the passengers’ list.

Worried relatives and friends of passengers on the ill-fated train, who had started crowding the counter, wanted to know the status of the occupants, position of the rakes and other details about the derailment. But the few railway officials present at the station could hardly throw any light on the points raised by them.

If this is the kind of treatment meted out to relatives of passengers on an “elite” train like Rajdhani, what will be the fate of passengers on other “lesser” trains' We are celebrating the 150th year of the world’s second-largest rail network, but we continue to be indifferent to the fate of the passengers. Is this fair'

The passengers’ relatives told me that their frantic calls to Patna and Mughal Sarai had failed to evoke any response. I sat on the main platform throughout the night, watching the helplessness of the passengers and the railway staff.

I wondered how there could be an information gap of this magnitude even seven hours after the accident when satellite communication and walkie-talkies were available.

The passengers’ relatives wanted to have specific information about the number of bogies which got derailed and fell into the river, but their queries went unanswered.

All this appeared to me to be a deliberate blackout of information by an insensitive railway administration.

I felt that the civil and railway administration alone would not be able to cope with the rescue and relief operations and rang up defence minister George Fernandes around 2.30 am. I could not contact him at the late hour and so urged his staff to convey my request to him for army deployment to carry out rescue operations.

Most of the passengers’ relatives wanted to rush to the accident site, but there was no special train to transport them. I took up the issue on their behalf with railway officials and was told that special trains could be arranged only with the Railway Board’s sanction. I urged them to keep the train ready as more and more relatives and friends of the passengers would like to visit the site.

The situation, however, continued to be chaotic at Howrah station and I did not want to unnecessarily prolong my stay after the authorities agreed to run a special train. My late-night visit did not have any political purpose. I went there as an ordinary citizen, moved by the magnitude of the train tragedy. All I wanted was a concerted bid by all concerned to complete the rescue and relief operations at the earliest and compensate the bereaved families.

The accident, however, has once again brought to the fore the immediate need for the railway administration to give top priority to passenger safety and maintenance of tracks and other equipment.

Our railway is the largest in Asia, but its infrastructure requires complete overhauling in keeping with modern technology. As railway minister, I tried to persuade the government to allot funds for implementing the Khanna committee’s recommendations on safety. But I did not succeed.

However, money is now available; sadly, the political will is missing. But if funds are used for political and individual interests, safety will suffer.

Safety and security have always engaged my attention. So much so, that when I protested against the bifurcation of railway zones, it was primarily with the safety aspect in mind. In fact, I wrote to the Prime Minister saying as much.

An accident has taken place and in future, too, accidents will happen. But the need of the hour is to set up an expert committee on safety. Its recommendations, unlike the previous ones, should be taken seriously.

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