Amritsar Tragedy: Why Indian Railways Ought to Share Blame

The death of over 62 people in the train accident near Amritsar has sent shock-waves across the country. The Prime Minister issued a statement on Twitter as per the usual; the countless injured are being treated at hospitals, while ex gratia compensations have been announced for families of the deceased. But – what next ?

The real tragedy is the attitude of the Railways who never learn. They have once again dumped blame on the public and the local administration who, they say, should have provided security to the people at the event. To those who are in alignment with the through process of the Indian Railways, let me tell you why they should be the ones to take the first call of responsibility.

Also Read: ‘Only Got Sister’s Arms’: Amritsar Tragedy Victims Recount Horror

What Went Wrong?

From the photographs it appears that the difference between the level of the railway track and that of the ground on which the festivities were being held, was not much. A railway track is usually at a height of 4 ft supported by ballasts on either side. This is precisely to provide a support base for the track and to prevent animal and humans from crossing. These ballasts effectively act as a barrier.

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In this case, people could even walk backwards crossing the track without any restraining surface.

Now, there is something known as a ‘monsoon patrol’. That is, two linesmen ought to start from two neighboring stations in opposite directions, so as to meet each other at a central point, exchange batons and report an abnormality. They are supposed to do this patrol during a ‘civil disturbance’ of any kind, as well. As Dussehra was approaching, such a mass gathering could have been easily anticipated seeing that a public ground like Dhobi Ghat was next to the railway tracks. The Railways should have provided a patrol squad and security.

During local festivals, the Railway Protection Force (RPF) is used to protecting the Railway property.

For instance in Tiruchirappalli, Southern Railway, when the train passes the Cauvery river on the 18th day of the Aadi month when people assemble in large numbers on the banks to perform puja for the river, it is customary for young boys to jump from the top of the train into the river. Thus, RPF men are posted a few stations ahead and on the sidelines to prevent mishaps.

What Indian Railways Could Have Done

It is to be noted that minutes before the accident causing the deaths of over 60 and injuring others, an Express train passed the area at a slow pace, which people saw, and moved away from. The train was moving slowly because it had just started moving from the Amritsar station.

That driver should have informed the station master on his walkie-talkie or Railways cell phone that such a crowd had assembled near the railway track. Accordingly, the station master could have sent his RPF men to the spot, to offer protection.

Less than two and a half minutes after the first (slow) train passed, according to Northern Railways officials, the second train, a DMU from Jalandhar to Amritsar, passed at a high speed. People were unable to see it, and were hit as a result.

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) roads have flyovers near a town or a busy village. Why? If the NH is at the level of the village /town roads, people tend to cross over, and to prevent that from happening, flyovers are built. Apply this to the Railways. In places where there is no level crossing, the height of the track is raised to 4 feet, partly to make crossing over difficult.

Railways can put up boards like the NHAI, that some spots are accident-prone and fix a flash and alarm device particularly when the difference between the road level and the track level is not much. If there had been a flash device, even when the sound could not be heard, people would have seen the flash warning. That is how it is in all developed countries.

A ‘Clever’ FIR

The railway authorities claimed that they had not given any permission to the Dussehra gathering. That means the ground was Indian Railways land. Then they ought to have posted RPF men as it is done for local festivals in other Indian Railways grounds. Having been negligent in not providing security, it is strange that the Government Railway Police (GRP) should have filed an FIR against unknown persons. If at all, it is the relatives of the dead who should file an FIR against the Railways.

It is a clever attempt of the Railways to legally shift the blame without ordering an enquiry. Whenever more than 10 persons die, it is a major accident. A restructured Railway Safety Commission should enquire into this.

The public on their part are also squarely responsible. An avoidable tragedy like this would have never occurred had they been a bit careful and aware. They have had to pay with their lives for this. But the Railways? They will get away, as they have usually gotten away with several accidents.

The Railways has a Safety Commission. To impress upon us their impartiality, they attach it to the Civil Aviation Ministry. But to protect their own vested interests, they man the Railway Safety Commission with their own deputed officers or retired officers. How nice!

What Piyush Goel Needs to Do

The Parliamentary Standing Committee report on the action taken on its recommendations says (SCR 188 2013-14) that only less than 40 percent of the money allotted for safety had been utilised by the Railways in the preceding two years. What happened after that? Of course, they made it a non-lapsable fund.

The Railways cannot be allowed to be their own rule-maker, operator and regulator. The safety commission should be restructured to have only external experts.

The HR Khanna Committee on Safety recommended that DRM and GM should take responsibility for accidents to ensure safety. But these bureaucrats ensured their own safety by throwing this recommendation in the dustbin. Piyush Goyal need not resign. But if he could transfer/suspend/dismiss a few DRMs and GMs, every time a train derails or is involved in a fatal accident, he would be doing a service to the nation – and would be setting a strong precedent – one of accountability, where it belongs.

For live updates on this incident, click here.

(The writer is Secretary, Consumer Protection Council, Tamil Nadu. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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