New Delhi: Taking moral responsibility for two major accidents in the span of four days, railway minister Suresh Prabhu on Wednesday offered to quit the Union Cabinet.
The Kaifiyat Express derailed on the intervening night of 22 and 23 August, injuring over 50 people, while the Kalinga-Utkal Express derailed on Saturday, killing 22 passengers and injuring 156.
While there is suspense over whether Prabhu’s offer to quit will be accepted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, given the impending reshuffle of the Union Cabinet, the government effected a change of guard in the Railway Board—the apex governing body of the railways.
It accepted chairman A.K. Mittal’s offer to resign owning moral responsibility and appointed Air India chairman and managing director Ashwani Lohani to the post. Lohani is an officer from the 1980 batch of the Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers (IRSME).
Prabhu’s resignation puts the spotlight on a worrying problem with regard to safety of the country’s national carrier. A story published in Mint on 23 August reported that on average, since 1960, there has been one accident every three days.
It also revives a tradition of Union ministers taking moral responsibility. Previously Lal Bahadur Shastri, Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee resigned from the cabinet in the aftermath of similar rail tragedies.
Indian Railways is the country’s largest employer and a network comprising 66,030km of track, ferrying 23 million passengers and three million tonnes of freight daily. It operates 10,773 locomotives, 63,046 coaches and 245,000 wagons.
Immediately after meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi following the cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Suresh Prabhu put out a series of anguished tweets and concluded with: “I met the Hon’ble Prime Minister @narendramodi taking full moral responsibility. Hon’ble PM has asked me to wait."
However, remarks by Union finance and defence minister Arun Jaitley on the sidelines of a press briefing on decisions taken by the Union cabinet fuelled speculation that Prabhu may be on his way out.
“Accountability is a good system in government," he said, before adding that “(the) Prime Minister will take a decision on whatever request the railway minister has made".
Political analyst Jai Murg is not surprised at the possibility of Prabhu’s exit. “There was a lot of pressure for privatization and exploitation of railway stations as PM had though a good amount of revenue will come from it. However, the projects did not take off and due to delays minister was under a lot of pressure. Similarly, projects on doubling of track too were under PMO (Prime Minister’s office) scrutiny and regular reports were being sought."
Prabhu, who took over as railway minister in November 2014, has tried to introduce several reforms in Indian Railways like changing the accounting system, corporatization of railways, giving more powers to railway general managers and focusing on non-fare revenue. However, his tenure has been under scrutiny especially due to the dismal performance of the railways vis-a-vis revenue and the frequency of accidents.
A senior government official, on condition of anonymity, said, “Prabhu had offered his resignation to PM in June itself citing health reasons and had sought a smaller ministry or some other role in the government as PM was unhappy with railways’ performance," before adding, “even the hunt for a new Railway Board chairman started unofficially in June itself."
A senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader on condition of anonymity said the resignation was on the cards and was on hold given the impending cabinet reshuffle. “The government wants to send a message—either perform or perish."
NITI Aayog in a study said that since 2012 there has been a spike in accidents on account of human negligence—with 60% of them being attributed to railway staff.