The worst accident in the Indian Railways in this century has shocked the nation. Its tragedy in human terms is unacceptably high — 275 people have reportedly died — and over 1,175 are seriously injured and taking treatment.
The entire world has spoken in one voice in the expression of condolences to the families of the bereaved and to India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi rushed to the accident spot, as had railways minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, to survey and oversee the rescue operations.
The entire country watched the horrific and wretched scenes as family members looked at lined up corpses to check on their loved ones. Hospitals nearby were overloaded with an unprecedented number of emergency patients.
Despite the overwhelming rush of people and totally underprepared infrastructure, people volunteered to help in myriad ways. People helped move bodies and tried to rescue survivors. They tried to rush the injured to the nearest mode of transport to take them to hospitals. Many came forward to donate blood.
But politics has soon caught up, and within less than 24 hours, the Opposition was out to hunt down the Modi-led government, with a plethora of questions, all valid, but their timing a bit indecorous.
What led to the accident? It is the first obvious question, but its answer cannot be summarised in a television spot soundbite. It would be hard for anyone, including a railway minister, to have a glance at the unprecedented wreckage, mangled coaches and bodies, and amidst the hurried rescue operations, answer if it was a human error, either on the part of the signalling or track control or the driver, or if there was a sabotage angle, or if it was a technological breakdown.
The barrage of questions on the spot is unfair but so is politics. The ruling BJP must stick to its brave words that none responsible for the accident will be spared. It must probe quickly — and some reports suggest the investigation is over — and make public the report. It must follow up with action, both penal and corrective, with alacrity.
There is little doubt that safety in the Indian Railways has risen and was on a path to be at par with global standards, but there are loopholes. The ghastly accident in Odisha is only a stark reminder that you can never be callous with safety precautions.
Constant training and upgrade of manpower, multiple checks and quality controls, mock drills and higher levels of automation are required to ensure that our mammoth railways network is free of accidents.
There have been accidents before and loss of life. We have learnt some lessons, too, but they are not enough. There must be zero tolerance to error, starting with punishing those who are responsible for this one. It would not be enough to pay ex gratia and compensation to those who have lost their loved ones, or offer a job, or take care of treatment of the survivors alone. Justice must be ensured.
And lessons must be taken so they can serve to help overhaul and reform our systems to see that we don’t have such tragedies again. Let’s make Indian Railways the safest in the world.