‘The Coromandel Ambulance Express’

At least 288 people have been confirmed dead and 1,175 injured in what is India’s deadliest train accident in decades. Meanwhile, 207 of 288 bodies recovered from the site have been identified and returned to their families. The remaining 81 bodies are still lying at the AIIMS Bhubaneswar mortuary. Prima-facie the failure of a sophisticated electronic system designed to keep trains from colliding has been blamed for the crash. Witch-hunt has just begun to suppress the precarious condition the Railways have been in for long. Opposition parties as usual without hitting the root cause of ailment in the Railways finished their duty by attacking the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for “man-made devastation caused by utter negligence”. After the Bihar Railway accident in 1981 when a train plunged off a bridge into a river killing an estimated 800 people, the June 2 Balasore accident is the most horrific in recent times. Minor and major accidents are occurring almost regularly and it cannot be otherwise because of all round privatisation of the system and stoppage of fresh recruitment in vital divisions to maintain the tracks safe. According to National Crime Records Bureau [NCRB] there were roughly 100,000 railway-related deaths in the country between 2017 and 2021. Not a small figure even by Indian standards!

India’s railway network is the fourth largest in the world--after the United States, Russia and China—and carries about 13 million passengers on 14,000 passenger trains every day. The network consists of 64,000 kms (40,000 miles) of track with more than 1.5 billion tonnes of freight being transported annually. They are introducing super-fast trains every now and then to influence voters without bothering about safety requirement. And nobody talks of dwindling workforce burdened with heavy work load. Continuous curtailment of employees has created a situation in which accidents will be more frequent. Indian passengers are lucky that it doesn’t happen so frequently.

Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has sought a CBI probe into the catastrophic accident near Balasore as if CBI has a magic wand to improve working conditions with inadequate manpower. They can at worst find a scapegoat to shield the reality.

The Railway Ministry no longer presents a separate budget; it is now part of the national budget. The Railway has lost its traditional character. The way the Modi government is farming out railway jobs to private players is bound to create more teething problems instead of solving them. Hundreds of thousands of posts lie vacant in critical departments and yet they are talking more of the same—modernisation and more machines, not working men.

Incidentally, a large number of people in the two passenger trains involved in the accident, namely the Coromandel Express and the Bengaluru-Howrah Express, were residents of West Bengal, who were either going to or returning from south India where they had gone for their advanced medical check-up or treatment. Sundarbans area in South 24 Parganas has recorded the maximum number of casualties from the state in the derailment of several coaches of the condemned Coromandel Express. Many people call this train ‘Ambulance Express’ and rightly so. It’s a pity that so many people, mainly middle class and poor people from the state are rushing in hordes towards Hyderabad, Coimbatore, Bengaluru, Chennai, Vellore and other cities equipped with advanced medical facilities. A patent allegation against Bengal government hospitals is that patients don’t get proper attention from the persons in authority, including doctors and ordinary staff. Then most hospitals lack adequate arrangement for proper service. It’s at a time when many physicians in the state have achieved international recognition in their respective field for excellence.

Strangely enough, political parties are now busy in blame game. While some BJP leaders are defending the indefensible--accident--citing statistics of non-BJP period, opposition leaders’ criticism of privatisation is too weak to move the Modi rock. With 2024 Parliamentary Polls not far away, the government is in a hurry to grab headlines announcing bullet trains, Metros and Vande Bharat express at the cost of passenger and rail safety.


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Vol 55, No. 52, Jun 25 - Jul 1, 2023