Patralekha Chatterjee | While modernising infra, let's focus on upkeep too

As we inch towards 2024 and the next general election, no surprise that even a deadly train wreck is fodder for political jousts

Modernisation is not a bad word. In a fast-changing and ruthlessly competitive world, a country needs to modernise its infrastructure to survive and succeed. That said, one question leaps out -- what does modernisation of infrastructure mean in India in 2023?

The question is particularly relevant in the aftermath of the horrific crash recently involving three trains in Balasore, Odisha.

A country’s transport network is its cardiovascular system -- the critical structure that enables the massive and continuous flow of people and goods through its arteries. This structure -- roads, highways, bridges, railways, ports, airports -- is about mobility. It is good for the economy, good for the citizens.

Unquestionably, it needs to be modernised to keep up with changing needs. But how much of the “modernisation” narrative in the political discourse is about maintenance and safety? While there is a relentless focus on the newest, the fastest, the grandest, how much attention is typically paid to sustaining what already exists, so that “safe travel” is just that.

As I write, the horrific train crash in Balasore with its gut-wrenching trail of deaths and devastation, is still on the front pages. It is also global news. At least 288 people have died. Many among the dead remain unidentified. Nearly 1,000 people have been injured. Many may become permanently disabled. Those who died were not rich. By now, everyone knows the basic facts. There were three trains -- the Coromandel Express, which derailed. Then, it crashed into a stationary goods train before being hit by another train -- the Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express, which was coming from another line. We also know that the Kavach Train Collision Avoidance System has been deployed only on 1,455 km of railway tracks, or about 2.13 per cent of India’s 68,000-km railway network. It was absent on the route where the accident took place.

Till date, hundreds of thousands of words have been used to describe the grief, anxiety and anger over the wreck. There are theories and counter-theories, including one about possible “sabotage” swirling in the social media. Official investigations are going on. Initial reports point to a signalling error/malfunction as the probable cause. Now, the Central Bureau of Investigation has been roped in to probe the crash. Railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who is also in charge of two other ministries, has announced compensation for the injured passengers and the families of those who were killed. The Narendra Modi government says that those responsible will be punished.

But as ordinary citizens who have a vital stake in safe travel, we must continue asking questions about the overall safety management system even when Balasore ceases to be “news”. Because there is no getting away from the bald truth -- we do not talk and do enough about safety systems and basic accountability.

Undoubtedly, India’s rail network, among the largest in the world, and built during the British colonial era, needs a major overhaul. But overhaul or modernisation is not just about new projects. It must take on board regular maintenance along with staff training and upgradation of their skills.

If investigations into the Balasore crash ultimately pin it down to human error at the lowest level, we need to ask a fundamental question about why there is such poor perception of the precise risks that jugaad or shortcuts entail? Modernisation cannot co-exist with jugaad.

Our political class focuses on new, shiny projects. There is scant attention to how the old ones are faring. Report after report which point out maintenance and safety deficits are ignored.

In all the discussions about infrastructure, how many times did one hear any top political leader from the ruling side focus on the issues flagged by a 2022 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India? The 102-page report has been centre-stage ever since the Balasore tragedy. What prevented the political leadership from focusing as much on the rail safety issues flagged by the CAG as on Vande Bharat, the new high-speed trains? It is not either/or. It could have been both.

The 102-page CAG report, which focused on derailment in the Indian Railways for the period 2017-18 to 2020-21, points out that there were shortfalls ranging from 30-100 per cent in inspections by Track Recording Cars required to assess geometrical and structural conditions of railway tracks. It also says that the “audit analysis of the quantum of scheduled inspections conducted during 2019-20 and 2020-21 revealed considerable shortfalls in the various types of inspections”. And that in “63 per cent cases, the ‘inquiry reports’ were not submitted to the accepting authority within the prescribed time schedule. In 49 per cent cases, there was a delay in the acceptance of the reports by the authorities”.

Significantly, the overall expenditure on Priority-I works from RRSK (Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh) showed a declining trend from 81.55 per cent in 2017-18 to 73.76 per cent in 2019-20, and the allotment of funds for Track Renewal works has declined too from 2018-19 to 2019-20. Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh was created in 2017-18 with a corpus of Rs. 1 lakh crore over a period of five years for critical safety related works. The funds allocated to track renewal works were also not fully utilised, says the CAG report. Out of 1127 derailments during 2017-21, 289 derailments (26 per cent) were linked to track renewals.

And it is not just the Railways. The week in which the Balasore crash happened also witnessed a collision between a bus carrying injured survivors from the Balasore accident site and a van in Medinipur in West Bengal. There is more. An under-construction bridge in Bihar collapsed, for the second time. Bizarrely, while Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar blamed “poor quality of work” for the collapse and pledged to act against those responsible, deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav described it as deliberate demolition due to significant design flaws detected by experts.

There have been train crashes earlier. Bridges have collapsed too. Remember Morbi?

The operative word is accountability -- then and now.

As we inch towards 2024 and the next general election, no surprise that even a deadly train wreck is fodder for political jousts. Which brings me to the issue of promises by politicians and public expectations when the country is investing millions to modernise its transport networks.

The public must not get bogged down by narratives which view train crashes, road accidents and bridge collapses solely through the prism of individual culpability. We need to insist on safety being the highest priority as the infrastructure modernisation saga unfolds. At stake is our lives.

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