modi vande bharat
The Narendra Modi government’s disproportionately high focus on glitzy Vande Bharat trains, station redevelopment projects through privatisation, and procurement of modern coaches has led to a “disastrous neglect” of the railways’ dire need for track, signalling and infrastructure upgrade. File photo: Twitter/@narendramodi

Odisha train accident: The bigger tragedy today is the health of Indian Railways

Railway Ministry has witnessed severe downgrade in Modi era, from choice of ministers, to end of separate rail budgets, and focus on glitz rather than cheap, safe transport for masses

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The Balasore train tragedy, which has claimed at least 288 lives so far, has predictably triggered calls for a thorough enquiry into what caused the worst railway disaster that India has witnessed in decades. The Narendra Modi-led Central government has readily agreed to order the probe.

If past record of such investigations is anything to go by, it is unlikely that the ‘high-level probe’ will eventually lead to any major revelations beyond finding some junior or mid-level railway staff and officials guilty of lapses. The report would, as has been the norm, also pay some earnest lip-service to the need for improved safety, upgrades and modernisation.

Also read: Could better budgetary muscle, Kavach implementation have averted train tragedy?

Whatever the immediate lapses that caused the triple-train crash may eventually turn out to be, it would be a second tragedy if the disaster in Odisha’s Balasore doesn’t force the Centre to conduct a holistic appraisal of the systemic rot that has progressively set into all aspects of the Indian Railways – particularly on the score of political leadership and operational mismanagement – during the past nine years of the Modi regime.

Inflated, false claims

“The Balasore train tragedy should serve as a wake-up call and lead to a thorough assessment of how the world’s largest rail network has been gradually crippled in every way possible while the government kept making inflated, and often downright false, claims about the efficiency and modernisation of railways”, senior journalist Srinand Jha, who has been covering the Railway Ministry for nearly two decades, told The Federal.

In Jha’s view, the Modi government’s disproportionately high focus on glitzy Vande Bharat trains, station redevelopment projects through privatisation, and procurement of modern coaches has led to a “disastrous neglect” of the railways’ dire need for track, signalling and infrastructure upgrade.

What has allowed the government to get away with this grossly lopsided approach, said Jha, is the “severe downgrade that Railways, as a ministry, has witnessed in the Modi era and the Prime Minister’s decision of doing away with the exercise of presenting a separate rail budget each year, which earlier allowed a lot of information about the overall health of the railways to come in the public domain, and appointing successive railway ministers who have neither an understanding of ground realities nor the inclination to assess them”.

Watch: Odisha train tragedy an interlocking or signaling failure? Former ICF GM explains

In the immediate aftermath of the Balasore tragedy, the Opposition, at large, has refrained from launching all-out political attacks at the Modi government barring the customary demands for resignation of the Railway Minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, on moral grounds, and an enquiry into the train crash to fix accountability. Even Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, who served as Railway Minister in the final year of the UPA-II regime, made it clear that “questions for the Prime Minister and the Railway Minister over the tragedy can wait, now is the time for rescue and relief”.

Choice of Railway Minister

It is only a matter of days before the Opposition launches its tirade, political and otherwise, at the government over the tragedy. Sources across the Opposition spectrum that The Federal spoke to conceded that their questions to the Centre would be based as much on the political leadership of the Railway Ministry as on the railway’s operational deficiencies.

Questions on Modi’s choice of railway ministers are expected and, arguably, also justified, as they are also associated directly with the “downgrade” in the political and administrative perception of the railway portfolio.

“Up until 2014, irrespective of which party or coalition ruled at the Centre, the railway minister was not just a man of political heft but also a grassroots leader who understood the importance of railways as the most widely used, and thus, the most public-oriented portfolio, which needed extra attention and intervention compared to any other ministry,” a former Railway Board chairman told The Federal, requesting anonymity. 

“This is not to say that railways didn’t see accidents under those ministers but there was always a public-oriented spirit that drove the ministry which has now been replaced by a profit and loss approach under ministers who are focussed solely on making railways look glamorous for upper middle class passengers,” the former chairman added.

Opinion: Odisha train tragedy exposes safety, fiscal issues, dipping revenue, rising debt 

The list of railway ministers India had before 2014, from Lal Bahadur Shastri, Babu Jagjivan Ram, Swaran Singh, Kamalapati Tripathi and Lalit Narayan Mishra, Ghani Khan Choudhury, Bansi Lal to Madhavrao Scindia, Jaffer Sharief, Ram Vilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav and Mamata Banerjee, bears this out. Since 2014, Modi has largely opted for technocrats as his railway ministers, be it Suresh Prabhu, Piyush Goyal or the incumbent, Vaishnaw.

“When you are a grassroots leader who has to worry about getting re-elected to the Lok Sabha yourself or about the electoral needs of your party, you think more about keeping ticket fares reasonable, about concessions for various categories of travellers, about affordable food for passengers, about streamlining operations and safety,” the former Railway Board chief told The Federal.

“For people like Piyush Goyal or Vaishnaw, the priorities are different. They want railways to look cool. So out go the cheap fares and concessions. The only interest they have is to cater to an upwardly mobile audience that wants to travel in a Vande Bharat and not a Garib Rath or a Duronto and to be able to boast about rolling out high-speed trains with modern amenities. As a result, the earlier trains suffer neglect and so do basic upgrades in coaches, tracks and signalling which eventually leads to safety hazards and disasters.”

Lack of rail budget

An Opposition leader who served as railway minister during the UPA regime echoed this view and added that an equally important aspect that needs dispassionate assessment is the financial health of the railways and its correlation with the slow pace with which the safety infrastructure was being upgraded during the Modi years. These, he said, have stopped being scrutinised in the way they were prior to 2014 primarily because Modi decided to do away with the practice of presenting a separate rail budget.

“During earlier governments, whenever the rail budget was presented, there was detailed discussion on aspects like operating ratio (in plain terms, the difference between spending and income in the running of trains), coach, track and signalling upgrade, safety mechanisms, etc. All of this stopped when the rail budget was made a footnote in the General Budget presented by the Finance Minister. Add to this the Modi government’s dubious record of manipulating data to obfuscate any inconvenient truths. This new style of running the ministry has allowed the government to gloss over glaring failures,” the Opposition leader said. 

These failures include the abysmally slow pace with which the railways has been able to deploy its much-hyped train collision prevention system, Kawach. Said Jha: “The Railway Minister says that the government has launched a train collision prevention system (Kawach) and the government, through its massive PR machinery, gives this wide publicity. What the government doesn’t tell you subsequently is the appalling progress that Kawach rollout has made, or that Kawach is a mere upgradation of the previously deployed Train Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). Of the over 68,000 km Indian railway network, only about 3,000 km is covered by anti-collision systems and of these 3,000 km, Kawach (launched in March 2022) is deployed on just over 1,400 km.”

A former Railway Board member told The Federal that the past nine years of the Modi government have been “the worst years of Indian Railways”. “The financial health of the Railways has never been worse and this is bound to have a direct impact on passenger safety. To be fair, Indian Railways was never a very profitable venture and its operating ratio invariably fluctuated between 92 and 96 (Rs 92 to 96 earned for every Rs 100 spent on running a train) barring a brief period during Lalu Prasad’s tenure when it improved to 88. This was because fares were kept low in keeping with the mandate of railways being the first preference mode of transport for poor, lower and middle classes and each year an enormous budget was allocated for launching new trains and upgrading safety and other infrastructure,” he said.

Operating ratio claims

“If you ask the government today, it will claim an operating ratio of 97 or 98 but, as someone who has served in the railways for a long time, I can tell you this is a manipulated figure. The actual operating ratio would be at around 115 to 120. If you look at the Vande Bharat trains, which have exorbitantly priced tickets, their occupancy rate is not more than 60 to 70 per cent. On all other trains, previously given fare concessions under senior citizens and other categories have been stopped and the fares have gone up steeply. You will also find getting confirmed train tickets very difficult. This may suggest that high occupancy despite high fares means high income but that is not happening. 

“The reason is that stealthily and progressively the number of general class and sleeper class coaches has been reduced on most trains, making trains unaffordable to a huge percentage of its traditional passenger base. Simultaneously, a disproportionately high amount is now being spent not towards providing passenger amenities but on overheads such as station beautification, high speed locomotives and PR,” the Railway Board member added.

There is obviously a lot about the Indian Railways that doesn’t add up with the tall claims of modernisation, upgradation and financial prosperity that the Centre makes routinely. Unfortunately, none of these are likely to be looked into as part of the Balasore tragedy probe.

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