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regular-article-logo Sunday, 26 May 2024

Off track: Editorial on the horrific train accident near Odisha's Balasore

The lack of clarity in the wake of a monumental tragedy is distressing. The government must also assure citizens that the prospects of a repetition of such a tragedy would be minimised

The Editorial Board Published 06.06.23, 05:46 AM
Rescue work underway after an accident involving Coromandel Express, Bengaluru-Howrah Express and a goods train, in Balasore district.

Rescue work underway after an accident involving Coromandel Express, Bengaluru-Howrah Express and a goods train, in Balasore district. PTI

There is blood on India’s train tracks: nearly 300 passengers have died and hundreds were injured in a nightmarish pile-up involving three trains in Odisha’s Balasore in what is certainly one of the worst mishaps in recent times. But the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre is, as is its wont, speaking in many voices. The Union railways minister — there have been calls for his resignation — has claimed that the ‘criminals’ allegedly responsible for the horror have been identified. It appears that the government suspects — is in favour of? — human agency. Yet, quite inexplicably, the minister reportedly informed a news conference that the Railway Board has recommended an investigation of the accident by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Why call the sleuths if the ‘criminals’ have already been identified? Meanwhile, the railway authorities ruled out the probability of manual error. Suspicions over the vulnerability of the interlocking system have also been swatted away. It is all a bit mysterious. The lack of clarity in the wake of a monumental tragedy is distressing. The government owes the nation some clear answers. It must also assure citizens that the prospects of a repetition of such a tragedy would be minimised. That hate-mongers are eager to give a communal twist to a catastrophe also speaks of the degeneration in New India’s zeitgeist.

What has been clear for a while though is a purported shift in policy vision as far as the railways are concerned. There has been a decisive transition towards, arguably, the exclusivity of a crucial public transport system in the name of modernisation. The proof lies in the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train network and Kerala’s SilverLine semi high-speed train project that are expected to be a drain on the exchequer. The capital outlay for the railways in this year’s budget was one of the highest ever. So the availability of monetary resources is not a problem. The problem, evidently, lies in the distribution of the kitty. Are adequate funds being spent on improving the railways’ safety standards? A report by none other than the Comptroller and Auditor General had discovered lapses ranging from 30% to 100% concerning inspections of structural conditions. This despite the fact that derailments on account of poor maintenance are the principal cause of rail accidents in the country. An overhaul is necessary. But can policy reform, if any, resist the bug of populism?

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