Safety first? Not for India’s frustrated rail commuters
Indian Railways pays out US$5.4 million annually in compensation for accidental deaths and injuries, but has been delaying the implementation of measures to prevent them because of a "lack of funds"
The stampede at a Mumbai suburban railway station that killed 22 people and left dozens injured on Friday morning highlights serious administrative deficiencies at Indian Railways (IR).
Of the world’s largest transporter’s 22 million daily passengers, 7.7 million are Mumbai suburban passengers from the middle and poor classes. They are subjected to dangerous and inhumane conditions on trains and have to negotiate extremely congested entry-exit bridges and staircases.
On average, 15 people die every day – 3,500 annually – on Mumbai’s suburban railway network as a result of falling from moving trains, according to government figures. The victims include young students, office workers and elderly people who get crushed under trains while struggling to get hold of the footboard on packed coaches. The fact that this danger is tolerated indicates a serious managerial disregard for public safety, something that is considered unacceptable in other parts of the world.
Despite the large number of deaths and the harrowing daily ordeal endured by millions of its customers, the state-owned national transporter, citing lack of funds, has kept on hold measures to decongest the system such as platform expansion, the widening of bridges and staircases, and the addition of new coaches.
A decongestion plan for Elphinstone station, the scene of Friday’s tragedy, has been on hold since 2015, despite repeated requests from commuters, activists, and even parliamentarians that the problem be addressed. In a letter written to Shiv Sena parliamentarian Arvind Sawant in February 2016, the then railway minister Suresh Prabhu cited a “lack of funds amid the global slowdown” as the justification for the delay in constructing a new foot-over bridge at Elphinstone station to reduce passenger congestion. The project, worth $1.8 million (Rs12 crore) was later approved, but it would take at least two more years to complete, say railway officials.
The cost of constructing the bridge appears small when one compares it with Indian Railways’ 2015-16 revenue of $26 billion and passenger earnings of $6.9 billion.
What is more remarkable is that the amount needed to build the bridge is just one-third of the figure IR spends on death and injury compensation payments each year.
According to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s 2016 report, IR paid out a whopping Rs182 crore between 2010-15 for rail deaths and injuries. Over 35,000 people died on Indian Railways’ tracks in this period, and nearly half were in suburban Mumbai.
While a large number of cases remain “pending,” almost 90% of all compensation has gone to those who have died on Mumbai tracks, finds the CAG. This means compensation payouts amounting to Rs36 crore ($5.4 million) a year.
Compensation payments usually range from Rs50,000 to Rs5,00,000, which is hardly sufficient. Surely, it is far more rational to spend that money on measures to improve safety than compensating for loss of life or permanent disability later.
Many nervous Mumbai commuters believe that if the bridge had been operational on Friday, those 22 victims would still be alive. One commuter, Radhika Sane, a banker said, “Perhaps this is called living life on edges. Rail commute in Mumbai is like a battle from where you come unhurt by luck only. Its only a miracle that we survived without a stampede all these years.”
Incidentally, the mishap occurred days after India inked its bullet train project with Japan to cut down the travel time between the commercial capital Mumbai and Ahmedabad (which are already well connected by air services, high-speed trains and the road transport system) at the hefty cost of Rs 80,000 crore to cater to a few hundred rich passengers.
One of Indian Railways’ problems is “ill-planning.” This is illustrated by the fact that a foot-over bridge was built at the same station a few years ago. However, it was controversially built on the southern side of the station instead of the north side, which is where most passengers enter and exit. That bridge is now unused except as a meeting point for young couples.
The CAG’s 2016 report also highlighted problems including the poor condition of tracks, points and crossings; encroachment along the tracks; and weak bridges and level crossings.
It also highlighted the failure to achieve the targets set for track-related work on the suburban section of all the Zonal Railways. The CAG said it indicated that IR could not successfully monitor ongoing work, which led to deficiencies in track maintenance that affected punctuality and the safe operation of suburban services.
There were 743 works in progress as of March 2015 on five Zonal Railways (CR, ER, SR, WR and Metro Railway, Kolkata). Audit scrutiny of 204 selected works undertaken during 2010-15 revealed time overruns ranging from one month to 69 months in respect of 106 works and cost overruns of Rs56.21 crore for 51 road safety and level-crossing works.
IR could not achieve the target of eliminating level crossings as envisaged in the Vision 2020 documents. Its lack of progress on work to eliminate level crossings indicates, critics contend, that IR is not sufficiently concerned about minimising accidents.
The CAG also suggested in last year’s report that IR must work on implementing its long-term plan to increase operational efficiency by managing the suburban railways separately, a move that would go some way to pacifying increasingly frustrated commuters.
Mumbaikars are also unhappy with their politicians’ handling of the problem. Some allege that Shiv Sena, which sought to take the high moral ground by saying their MPs wrote to Prabhu about the issue in 2015, has done nothing substantial to bring about change. Shalini Mhatre, a state government employee, said, “Even if the Shiv Sena had shown half of the commitment for the railway passengers compared to what it had for the approval of Shivaji and Thackeray memorials, our problems would have been addressed long back. Are they not supposed to pursue the case till the end instead of just writing a letter to the Rail Ministry?”