Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge on Monday questioned the Centre’s decision to order a CBI investigation into the triple train accident in Balasore, suggesting it was a diversionary tactic and flagging a 2016 rail tragedy that was probed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) amid claims of a conspiracy and eventually closed without filing a chargesheet.
In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kharge said: “Unfortunately, the people in charge — your good self and railway minister Ashwani Vaishnav — do not want to admit that there are problems. The railway minister claims to have already found a root cause but yet has requested the CBI to investigate. The CBI is meant to investigate crimes, not railway accidents.”
Kharge said: “The CBI, or any other law enforcement agency, cannot fix accountability for technical, institutional and political failures. In addition, they lack the technical expertise in railway safety, signalling, and maintenance practices.”
The Congress chief, who is also a former railway minister, added: “The statements so far and the roping in of yet another agency without the required expertise (CBI), remind us of 2016. They show that your government has no intent to address the systemic safety malaise, but is instead finding diversionary tactics to derail any attempts to fix accountability.”
The letter said: “The nation still remembers the 2016 derailment in Kanpur, where 150 people lost their lives. The railway minister asked the NIA to investigate. Subsequently, you yourself claimed in an election rally in 2017 that there was a ‘conspiracy’. The nation was assured that the strictest punishment would be meted out. However, in 2018, the NIA closed the investigation and refused to file a chargesheet. The nation is still in the dark — who is responsible for 150 avoidable deaths?”
Recalling how several oversight institutions like the standing committee of Parliament and the CAG had flagged safety concerns, Kharge said: “I say with remorse that instead of focusing on strengthening the railways at the basic level only superficial touch-up is being done to stay in news. Instead of making the railways more effective, more advanced, and more efficient, it is instead being meted out with step-motherly treatment. Meanwhile, consistently flawed decision-making has made travelling by rail unsafe and has, in turn, compounded the problems of our people.”
On the shortage of staff, the letter said: “At present, about three lakh posts are lying vacant in Indian railways. In fact in the East Coast Railway — the site of this tragic accident — about 8,278 posts are vacant. It’s the same story of apathy and negligence even in the case of senior positions, where both the PMO and the Cabinet Committee play a crucial role in appointments. There were more than 18 lakh railway employees in the decade of nineties, which have now been reduced to about 12 lakh, of which, 3.18 lakh are employed on contractual basis.”
Kharge also referred to the warning that the principal chief operating manager of South West Zonal Railway had sounded about a system flaw after an accident was averted on February 8. He asked: "Why and how could the ministry of railways ignore this crucial warning? The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport has criticised the complete apathy and negligence of the Railway Board towards recommendations of the Commission of Railway Safety (CRS).
"The latest audit report of CAG makes a special mention of how between 2017-18 (and) 2020-21, about seven out of 10 train accidents happened due to derailment from tracks. Between 2017-21, there was zero testing of Rail and Weld (Track Maintenance) for safety in East Coast Railway. Why were these grave red flags ignored?”
The CAG report also highlights that funding for the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) has been reduced by a massive 79 per cent, the letter said.
“Is this not being callous about the safety of passengers? Why was the previous government’s plan to roll out the anti-train-collision system, originally named Raksha Kavach put on the back burner? What was the reason for merging the Budget for Indian Railways with the Union Budget in 2017-18? Has this not adversely affected the autonomy and decision-making capacity of Indian railways? Was this done to undermine the autonomy of Railways to push reckless privatisation?” Kharge asked.
He added: “Even though privatisation of railways was repeatedly opposed during Parliamentary proceedings, all concerns have been ignored by bringing trains to stations under the ambit of brazen privatisation. It’s apparent that the government’s arbitrary decision-making including the National Rail Plan for up to 2050 without any consultation or detailed discussion is aimed at exploiting the railways and making it an easy target and fodder for private companies.”