Railway officers dump passenger safety for personal comfort
Twenty-two carriages carrying 1,000 passengers hurtle back 13 km without an engine in Odisha on April 7. Boulders are placed on the tracks to bring them to a halt.
Travellers of the runaway Ahmedabad-Puri Express were lucky - but not Mangal Seth, who was killed when a 10-metre track tore into his coach as the Hatia-Gorakhpur Maurya train passed through Bihar's Lakhisarai district a week later.
The two incidents have inevitably brought the question of passenger safety to the fore once again.
Over and above the human-error factor routinely blamed for frequent railway mishaps and deadly accidents, an India Today investigation has found out what could be the real culprit - a feudal culture deeply entrenched in the network's lower management.
A multi-state probe spanning more than a month discovered gaping holes in the railway system's last layer of defence - the safety workers - called trackmen - were not where they were supposed to be.
Instead of patrolling, protecting and repairing the worn-out rail lines with their crowbars, hammers and tongs, many trackmen were seen using brooms, buckets, mops and kitchen knives at the government houses of their immediate bosses.
The investigation discovered a number of senior railway officials across the regional zones pulling the trackmen off the field to work as their personal domestic helps.
At the official residence of Shailesh Kumar, an assistant divisional engineer with the east-central railway at Barauni in Bihar, trackman Manoj Kumar Sah disclosed everything that his supervisor had assigned him to do.
"I stay at his home all day during the duty hours. I have been told to stay and work indoor here," he told India Today's investigative reporter.
"What work?" asked the journalist.
"Sweeping, brooming and cooking for one person (the boss)," he revealed.
But on paper, Sah was marked present on track duty.
"Have you marked your attendance at office?" probed the reporter.
"No, no. The attendance is marked here itself. The sheet is here," Sah replied.
Another trackman, Pankaj Yadav, was spotted fencing the garden at the official home of Ajay Kumar Thakur, a senior section engineer at Barauni.
"What is this fencing for?" asked the reporter.
"This is for the chief. He'll plant something here, some edible crops," Yadav answered. I came here and had my attendance marked. He told me to build this first," the trackman disclosed.
Just last year, the new railway board chairman, Ashwani Lohani, vowed to end the VIP culture plaguing the network.
After his appointment to the top post in the railways, he identified human resources as a priority area to work on, describing employee welfare as a key concern.
"I have always believed in the supremacy of the human resource. For me my employees, not the customers, come first. For, it is my firm conviction, that a contented and happy employee is the prerequisite for the success of any organization. And this great organisation is no exception. I would therefore, expect employee welfare to be the core concern of all railwaymen," Lohani wrote in a staff letter last year.
But his missives seem to have fallen on the deaf ears of engineers working on the ground.
In the northern zone, India Today found the scene to be equally awful. Trackman Raj Kumar was seen sweeping the housing complex of a senior section engineer in Meerut, Mohd. Ashique
"I have swept the floor, disposed of the litter and unloaded some stuff from a vehicle," Kumar said. "Another round of sweeping will be done in the evening as well. Then, fetching milk and cleaning some dishes too. Why should I lie?"
At Modinagar in western Uttar Pradesh, trackman Chandrashekhar was cleaning the floor of senior section engineer Rameshwar Singh's house. "Ten minutes more for this sweeping. I'll be done in ten minutes," he said.
At the official residence of assistant divisional engineer D.S. Sidhu in Ludhiana, trackman Jeevan revealed how railway staff work in shifts at their sahab's home.
"It's everything. Chapatis have to be cooked for Sahab. I'll sit here for two to four hours, then comes he (another trackman) for the next, then the next. It's compulsory for one person to be present here," he said.
Shivagopal Mishra, general secretary the All India Railwaymen's Federation, insisted chairman Lohani's warning to lower management has cut down the incidence of staff deployment for personal work. "But to say it has brought down such wrongful practices to zero would be wrong," he added.
Mishra called for a rigorous employment drive to fill up vacant safety-related positions in the railways.
Nitin Chaudhary, a spokesman for the northern railway, vowed strict action for any misuse of safety staff by the supervisors.
"If we find out any such thing happening, we'll take strong disciplinary action," he said. Chaudhary, however, claimed that incidence of staff misuse has drastically reduced across the network.