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Andheri bridge tragedy: A wake-up alarm!

Thursday, July 05, 2018
By Bharatkumar Raut

Even as the Elphinstone Railway foot bridge tragedy memories have yet remained in the minds of Mumbaikars, the Andheri Railway over bridge came down crashing  early on Tuesday morning when Mumbai was experiencing torrential rains all night. By the grace of the God, no train was passing under the bridge and the driver of the next train was alert enough to apply brakes to bring the 12-coach train to a grinding halt just at the right time and thus avoided a worse tragedy. However, a question arises in many minds; when would the railway authorities learn? It seems the hard-headed Indian Railways never learns. On September 29, 2017, the New Elphinstone Bridge collapse killed 22. In spite of numerous bridge engineers, assistant bridge engineers and chief bridge engineers, Railway Minister Piyush Goel roped in the Army to re-build the bridge – which they did in all of 117 days. Not many people know that during the Raj a sensitive chief bridge engineer Barog, had resigned for this blatant lack of confidence. Barog failed in connecting a tunnel in the Shimla-Kalka line and was fined Re 1 by the Railways, and for that he committed suicide. The tunnel is named after him. After that in independent India many tragedies killing hundreds of human lives took place; hardly any of the officer quit barring the then Railway minister late Lal Bahadur Shastry who had resigned when Madras railway accident took place.

All our railway authorities from the Railway Minister and the Railway Board Chairman to the site engineer shamelessly continued to bask in an environment where there is total lack of accountability. As a result, we have had to face another tragedy on Tuesday when the Andheri Road over-bridge, built by the Indian Railways, collapsed. Just because we got lucky and there were no casualties, the negligence does not become less gross or less criminal. There seems to be no action taken against any erring technocrat or bureaucrat including the Divisional Railway Manager.

Earlier tragedies
Let me recall here that the Andheri and Elphinstone Road tragedies are not the first in this respect. On February 11, 2013, at the Allahabad junction, a stampede killed 36 Kumbh Mela pilgrims. On May 16, 2010, a last- minute change in the platform caused panic, and a stampede at the New Delhi Railway station, resulting in two deaths. Pratap Rudy of BJP called the deaths “inexcusable and unpardonable” and blamed the then “absentee minister”. When Railwaymen talk of railway safety, they usually speak of rails, coaches, level crossings and engines – and never about foot over-bridges and road over-bridges. FOBs and ROBs do not find a mention in the table of accidents. Just two facts will illuminate the Railway bureaucrats’ attitude towards safety.

I was a member of the Parliament (Rajya Sabha) when the Delhi controversy erupted on the floors of the Supreme Houses. The then railway minister created a Safety Fund of Rs 17,000 crores, admittedly, a chunk of it was spent on rolling stock, which should have come under Capital Expenditure. The Parliamentary Standing Committee report (Of which I was a member then) on the action taken on its recommendations says that only less than 40 per cent of the money allotted for safety had been utilised by the Railways in the preceding two years, and the balance was returned. Did the Railways spend all the money allotted, the next year? No. They made the money non-lapsable. Unless drastic reforms are made and accountability are built into the system at all levels, the Railways will continue to lower its standards, killing thousands along the way. The first thing to be imbibed in the minds of the Railway officers is that the Railways are not only for those who work for it, but it is for the public who own, maintain and support the Railways.

For the comforts of employees
An eminent writer, economist and member of NITI Aayog, Gurcharan Das wrote in the foreword to Indian Railways – The weaving of National Tapestry, “One sometimes feels that the purpose of Indian Railways is not to serve customers but to tend to the comforts of the 1.3 million employees who have jobs for life. Employees account for 50 per cent of the Railway costs in India. And reflect seven times more manpower per km than in developed railway countries. Friends and families of Railway employees occupy, on average, 40 out of the total 100 berths in the two-tier (AC) sleeper class and get priority in bookings”. Everyone working for this largest enterprise of the nation must read and think about Gurcharan's observations and criticism seriously as 'Indian Railways is nation's property'.

To say the least, the Andheri Accident has come as an alarm for the railway authorities to wake up and take action. If they take it as 'just another' incident, a time will not be far away when commuters of the railways would revolt and send all authorities cracking down. That would be too late.

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