In governmental settings, if one wants to buy some time, the best course of action is to appoint a committee. The ministry of railways seems to have done that just days before three accidents in different parts of the country. On Monday, railway minister Dinesh Trivedi announced that he had appointed a “high-level safety review committee” to look into all aspects of safely running train services in the country.
The committee, to be led by former Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar, is unlikely to discover anything radically different. In the past decades, there have been many committees and reviews of rail safety.
The Railway Safety Review Committee (1998); The White Paper on Safety on the Indian Railways (2003) and the Corporate Safety Plan (2003-13)— presented during Nitish Kumar’s time as railway minister—all highlighted the same issues.
A file photo of a locomotive near Pragati Maidan station
The fact of the matter is that ensuring railway safety requires spending money. Installation of anti-collision devices, replacement of aging track, rolling stock (engines and coaches) and improving the signalling system are well-known requirements.
The issue is not rediscovering the wheel but doing something else. But for the past many years, the ministry has been in the stranglehold of populist ministers (including the present one) who have a single point agenda: not to raise passenger tariffs. In the absence of a meaningful revenue mobilization drive, only token amounts can be found for railway safety.
In 2003, a 10-year safety plan had been estimated to cost nearly Rs 32,000 crore. Even under a reformist minister, finding that kind of money would have been a challenge.
Today, not only is that impossible but even what is required has gone up. The first step in ensuring safety lies elsewhere: in undoing a culture of populist politics. Then, and only then, can sufficient funds be found and allocated for long-pending safety tasks. Until then, safety will only be paid lip service.
That is the root of the problem. Committees are merely a tactic to show that something is being done. In reality, it will be a waste of paper and little else.
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