What will we learn from the train crash?

We are pressing on with a development model that serves a few well while leaving behind a vast part of India
Last Updated : 07 June 2023, 23:48 IST
Last Updated : 07 June 2023, 23:48 IST

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As India emerges from the shock and horror of the triple train crash at Balasore in Odisha on June 2, and as investigations pick up into the cause or causes of the disaster that has claimed 278 lives and left over 1,000 people injured, the nation must ask some difficult questions that will begin with the railways but may not end there. They will stretch to a wider canvas to ask about the idea, the purpose, and indeed the philosophy of development that has brought political capital and other investments in high-tech, bullet-train technology at one end, and a poorly maintained, almost languishing infrastructure that is accident-prone at the other end.

In this specific case, the CBI has been called in to probe what the authorities have said could be “deliberate interference” in the signaling system – a quick side-tracking that has been fiercely criticised by Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, a former railway minister who has raised a whole set of important questions. Kharge’s open letter to the Prime Minister points to a larger directional approach that is at the root of the present state of Indian Railways.

It is important to note from the reports that the railway authorities have pulled in the CBI not because they found something specific – their case, according to reports, is that this monumental signaling error that reportedly caused the crash could not have happened but for interference, and so they have turned to the CBI to look for this interference. Railway Board Member (Operation and Business Development) Jaya Varma Sinha was quoted as saying that “there may be outside interference in the signaling system”.

In a cruel irony, June 2 was also the day the railways ended a two-day ‘Chintan Shivir’ which was “centred on preparing an action plan to implement Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Vision 2047,” and was presided over by Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw. The entire top railways leadership was there, with some 400 participants in attendance. To quote the railways: “The objective of the Chintan Shivir was to brainstorm on finding new ways and methods and adopt innovative ideas to achieve commissioning of more track/year (New line, GC & Multi-tracking), higher loading per day, achieving 160 kmph on 50% routes, and attaining Zero Consequential Accidents and reduction in CRO & MRO by 90% ... The two-day Chintan Shivir event witnessed deliberation on various issues and boosting Railway’s pace further in making New India.” CRO and MRO in the railways usually refer to cases of ‘cattle run over’ and ‘man run over’.

It is true that the meeting also talked of safety; the minister is said to have emphasised safety and adoption of newer technologies. But the thrust of the meetings and the broad approach has been huge investments in fancier projects. For example, the budget for FY 2023-24 provided an outlay of Rs 2.4 lakh crore, significantly up from Rs 1.4 lakh crore in 2022-23. This was also a nine-fold jump in a decade. But the higher outlay was to feed a new pipeline of Vande Bharat trains, the speed of which is now being called the symbol of India moving ahead. As the Prime Minister put it while inaugurating a Vande Bharat train on May 25: “The country is not going to stop now, the country has now caught its pace. The whole country is moving ahead at the speed of Vande Bharat and will continue to move ahead.”

The railways, of course, need newer technology, faster trains and more conveniences. But this story of development at one end is worrisome because it also leaves behind a vast part of India where these investments won’t reach, where services won’t improve, and where some trains will never reach their destination because they derailed and passengers died.

Saying this is not necessarily to criticise the march ahead but to raise important questions on the kind of development and the purpose of this development model. The story of ‘India Shining’, because this is what the entire narrative of growth and smart technology and newer services adds up to, was never liked by the vast majority who continue to languish. This was the ‘India Shining’ campaign of the BJP elite and an advertising agency, a campaign that was thought to have brought defeat for the BJP under Atal Behari Vajpayee in the 2004 elections.

We live in an India where slick city airports are shining, but railway stations only a little distance away are poorly maintained. The bus infrastructure is even weaker – rickety buses are the only means of transport in the remoter parts of India, and no government has ever cared to provide a decent bus service to connect the people living in remote villages. Similarly, public land goes to fancier schools and specialty hospitals, which are often out of bounds for the ordinary citizen given the for-profit models that tend to extract the most even in services that should be affordable, accessible, available and acceptable in quality and standards.

It should be easier to take a bus, than a car, from an airport. It should be easier to be treated in public hospitals than in private hospitals. Our citizens should be drawn to public schools, not private schools with air-conditioned classrooms. Trains in the remotest corners of India should be first safe, then run on time, and then provide conveniences. If this order is reversed, and select pockets get the benefits, the story of development will produce more cracks that will destabilise the house and shake the foundations. Speed around houses that are weak will weaken the foundations further.

None of this is a new skew. But it has a new bent these days. It has an air of certainty, a disdain for the old and an eagerness for the new that disregards many realities of a nation that is growing unequally. The future of India will need a development model very different from the one on which we are pressing the accelerator. It is time to apply the brakes and think about it.

(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR.) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)

Published 07 June 2023, 18:02 IST

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