Odisha train accident
Prime Minister Narendra Modi inspects the site of the train accident in Odisha's Balasore district on Saturday | Pic: Twitter/ANI

Odisha train tragedy: By roping in CBI, Centre seeks to absolve itself of neglect

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The government’s decision to hand over investigation of the Balasore, Odisha train tragedy to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is at one level an undisguised attempt to criminalise the tragedy. On the other hand, the order is also aimed at absolving itself of charges of neglect and lopsided priorities.

The intention, right from Prime Minister Narendra Modi downward, is to play the blame game. Statements have been made, which are clearly conjunctive, by Modi, Minister for Railways Ashwini Vaishnaw and several other party leaders, including neo-converts like Dinesh Trivedi, who held the Railways portfolio in the UPA government as a Trinamool Congress nominee.

Each of these assertions point fingers at unidentified persons/groups. This is unmistakably part of the ongoing effort to deflect criticism of the Centre. Since the horrifying accident, there is mounting evidence on how this government prioritised the pursuit and launch of cosmetically appealing newfangled trains.

Lopsided priorities 

The much-hyped Vande Bharat Express trains are essentially day trains covering a few hundred kilometres and run between big cities with limited stoppages. In contrast, the bulk of Indian passenger trains haul people over much longer routes, especially from smaller cities and towns across the length and breadth of the country.

Also Read: Odisha train tragedy: Why was Coromandel Express’ Point 17-A set for the loop line?

Furthermore, fares on these air-conditioned trains are significantly higher than even previous-generation elitist and superfast trains like the Rajdhani Express and Shatabdi Express, making them completely beyond the reach of the average Indian.

When the first Vande Bharat Express was rolled out in February 2019 between New Delhi and Varanasi, the prime minister’s constituency, by Modi, and thereafter followed up with the launch of the train between New Delhi and Katra — the station for the Vaishno Devi Shrine in the Jammu region — it appeared that the train would play up the BJP’s political plank of religio-nationalism by running between stations that were the nearest railheads to Hindu pilgrimage sites.

However, from September 2022 onwards, Vande Bharat Express trains have been launched in a breathless manner between various big cities. While five trains were launched before curtains on 2022 were rung down, this year, as many as 11 new Vande Bharat trains have been flagged off.

This has naturally stretched the capacity of the railway ministry and its key personnel. As a result, there have been reports of several incidents that are simply unacceptable for a railway network like India’s where much remains to be done in terms of modernisation of tracks and signal upgrade.

Disdain for safety 

Several new reports pointed out that barely hours before the ghastly accident involving the three trains, a ‘Chintan Shivir’ or brainstorming session, headed by Vaishnaw, skipped presentations on railway safety by various zones.

The presentations on safety were skipped to make time for discussions on the launch of Vande Bharat trains and ways to increase railway revenue.

In contrast to the upper-class profile of passengers on Vande Bharat trains, the majority of passengers travelling on the two ill-fated trains, the Shalimar-Coromandel Express and Yesvantpur-Howrah Superfast, were drawn from the working class. Many of them were migrant workers either heading to work or returning for a short vacation.

Also Read: Odisha train tragedy: World leaders extend support to India, condole loss of lives

It is not that the accident could have been averted if Vaishnaw had given preference to the presentations on safety. Yet, this decision stands as a reminder to the utter disdain for safety beyond the headline-making announcements.

PM’s “assurance”

Even before the last of the bodies were recovered from the crash site and while the medical teams were still trying to cope with the huge demand on the limited medical facilities, Modi visited the site.

Addressing media persons, the prime minister said, “Strictest action will be taken against those found guilty in the train accident. No one will be spared.” The words were repeated on social media to ensure that no channel of dissemination was missed.

On face value, this is a reassuring statement that the government shall not let anyone who is guilty go scot free. But this statement is person- or group-specific. It does not factor that the accident could be due to a systemic failure, as was pointed out in the 2022 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG).

The CAG report had highlighted more than a few shortcomings and made many recommendations. The cause of derailments, the CAG had averred, was chiefly related to “maintenance of track”. The CAG also recommended that Indian Railways should develop a strong monitoring mechanism — indicating its absence — to ensure regular maintenance and upgrading technology constantly.

Neglect of CAG report

If Modi’s “no one will be spared” promise is to walk the talk, then it should include those who did not implement the CAG’s recommendation. Will the CBI point accusative fingers at those who are responsible for policy formulation.

The additional problem is Modi’s words at the accident site are very similar to rhetorical undertakings given on other occasions involving crises of completely different nature. For instance, after the Uri terror attack in September 2016, Modi had pledged that “no one will go unpunished.”

Significantly, the first Vande Bharat train was launched by Modi a day after the Pulwama terrorist attack on February 14, 2019. In his speech at the launch, he had also used the “will not be spared” phrase.

More importantly, he had also fused the narrative of the train with a terror strike and said that the “every engineer and every worker” on the Vande Bharat project had played an important part in putting the nation on the path of “prosperity and development” from where it was possible to salute the “souls of the brave martyrs”. Suggestions that the accident was caused by forces/persons inimical to the nation rules out the process of self-evaluation or introspection to check if all the boxes to prevent such accidents had been ticked, and if not, was this due to human error/wilful conspiratorial conduct or was it a case of systemic negligence?

“Sabotage” theme

The “sabotage” theme was, in fact, floated early into the accident by Trivedi in one of the television debates. Vaishnaw, even while the inquiry process was underway and prior to the CBI being entrusted with the investigation, claimed that the “root cause” of the accident and the “criminals” responsible for it have been identified.

If this is indeed the case, is there any necessity to hand over the investigation to the CBI?

Besides the fact that the central agency’s track record is not remotely exemplary, it cannot be ignored that its primary task is to investigate crime and not train accidents that may have been caused partially due to lapses in implementing recommendations made by inquiry commissions and departmental probes.

But, is it possible that the government has already made up its mind that this accident was a crime committed against the nation/government/BJP/Modi with the intention of retarding “New India’s progress on the path to development and growth?

Did anyone say the BJP does not like conspiracy theories?

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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