By Dushyant Shekhawat Oct. 24, 2018
For a country that aspires to build Smart Cities everywhere, turn its financial capital into Shanghai, and wishes to be at the forefront of global innovation and technology, incidents like the Amritsar and Kolkata train tragedies are inconvenient reminders of just how far we have to go.
ore than 60 people were run over by a train in Amritsar on Dussehra. They were standing on the tracks watching the burning of Ravana’s effigy and could not hear the approaching vehicle over the sound of fireworks. Ghastly indeed, yet there’s a grisly sense of familiarity to this. After all, India, with its vast network of railways (the fourth largest in the world), sees a worrying number of accidents on the track each year.
Statistically, the number of railway accidents is decreasing. As data published last year shows, the number of accidents dropped from 325 in 2003-04 to 106 in 2015-16. It’s an improving safety record, but needless to say it is also far from perfect. Administrative negligence and a disregard for public safety led to heavy losses, both for the victims and the Indian Railways, who pay out ₹303 lakh on average as compensation per year.
This is the reality of Indian Railways – a house of cards, where minute errors and lapses in judgements can have catastrophic consequences. However, the railways and the central government have a much more optimistic vision for the future. In their minds, the pervasive, deep-seated issues that lead to tragedies like the one that unfolded in Amritsar last week are beasts that can be slain by the silver bullet of modernisation. Never mind that a regular passenger train just led to 60 deaths last week, or that stampedes at railway stations like the one in Kolkata yesterday or Mumbai earlier this year claim dozens of lives with alarming regularity. Yet what India needs are bullet trains and hyperloops!
Public awareness about safety measures and stricter accountability for authorities is required, unless we want to remain trapped in this tragic cycle.
In September, the central government announced plans to acquire 18 bullet trains from Japan, with the first bullet train running between Mumbai and Ahmedabad by 2022. The Indian Railways are also going to set up assembling facilities for bullet trains in the country on a public-private participation basis. Before that, in February, Virgin Hyperloop One announced their intentions to connect Mumbai and Pune with a hyperloop, cutting down travel time between the two cities to just 25 minutes.
For a country that aspires to build Smart Cities everywhere, turn its financial capital into Shanghai, and wishes to be at the forefront of global innovation and technology, incidents like the Amritsar train tragedy are inconvenient reminders of just how far we have to go. The blame-game over the accident has begun, on cue. The Congress-led state government of Punjab is pinning the blame on the Railways, who in turn have denied culpability as they claim to have been uninformed about the Dussehra festivities taking place adjacent to the tracks. The National Human Rights Commission has served a notice to both the Punjab government and the Railways seeking detailed reports, and CM Amarinder Singh has ordered a magisterial probe into the accident.
There will be consequences, and the investigations held in the wake of the accident will certainly find someone to take the fall for the tragedy, but the blame for the pitiable state of India’s railway safety isn’t to be laid solely at the door of the authorities. As observed by the NHRC, it cannot to be a “sane act” to sit on railway tracks to watch a fireworks show.
Inexplicably, there are many people across the country who feel like simple rules devised for their safety are optional. We saw this taken to its gruesome extreme in Amritsar, but it’s also visible when we see people crossing the railway tracks during rush hour at Dadar Station. It’s also visible in how two-wheeler riders in Mumbai decide the mandatory helmet law becomes optional after sunset. YouTube is full of videos of teenage boys monkeying around on moving trains and railway tracks with not a single passerby bothering to even tell them to stop, a testimony to our foolhardiness as citizens.
While futuristic transportation and infrastructure projects might make for good headlines – especially for a government desperately in need of fulfilling their promises of development – they are going to be mere distractions as long as the environment that led to Amritsar remains undisturbed. Public awareness about safety measures and stricter accountability for authorities is required, unless we want to remain trapped in this tragic cycle. In looking to a future of full of bullet trains and hyperloops, we must not allow ourselves to forget the stark reality of our present.