Jul 31, 2012 at 11:46am IST

Are Railways becoming death traps?

32 passengers were killed after a coach of the Delhi-Chennai Tamil Nadu Express caught fire at Nellore in Andhra Pradesh. On Face the Nation, CNN-IBN Deputy Editor Sagarika Ghose asks a panel of experts - Are Railways becoming death traps?

Here is the full transcript of the show:

Sagarika Ghose: Hi there, yes there's been yet another tragic rail accident. 32 passengers were killed when a coach of the Delhi-Chennai Tamil Nadu express caught fire early this morning at Nellore in Andhra Pradesh. The cause of the fire in S-11 coach is not known yet. Railway Minister Mukul Roy has hinted at sabotage. Since 1962 there have been as many as five commitees recommending urgent reforms in Railways, but why is it that this transporter of over 17 million Indians everyday, continues to ignore passenger safety. The Karkotkar committee has said that 15,000 die every year on railway track. Are railways the death traps for the citizens of India? Joing us, Dinesh Trivedi, Former Railway Minister, Professor G Raghuram, Author, VC, Indian Maritime University, Akhileshwar Sahay, Railways Expert, Vivian Fernandes, Editor, Special Features-CNBC TV18.

Are Railways becoming death traps?

32 passengers were killed after a coach of the Delhi-Chennai Tamil Nadu Express caught fire at Nellore in Andhra Pradesh. On Face the Nation, CNN-IBN Deputy Editor Sagarika Ghose asks a panel of experts - Are Railways becoming death traps?

Dinesh Trivedi, a small short circuit in that coach S11 became a huge fire, claimed 32 live, but the ministers said it is sabotage. He almost abdicates responsibility. Is it yet another case of politicians passing the buck on a tragedy on the railways?

Dinesh Trivedi: Sagarika, first of all my heart reaches out to the families who have lost their near and dear ones. Having said that, these are the symptoms of a cancer and that cancer is somewhere in the politics in the railways. It is high time that we stop playing politics with the railways and stop playing with people’s lives. At the end of the day who dies? It is the poorest of the poor. Rajdhani, Shatabdi are perhaps better taken care of because rich people travel in that. Until and unless you deal with safety, I am afraid these symptoms will carry on, accidents will happen, poor people will die, breaking news will take place, we all will come on the TV and nothing will change. I tried to do that, I tried with the experts of the country, they gave me a prescription, I wanted to follow that prescription and nothing else. Unless and until you organise the railways you cannot address the safety period. Railways is in a mess, total mess.

Sagarika Ghose: But Mr Trivedi isn’t it time that heads roll? Isn’t it time that Railway Minister offer to resign or sacked? Because in the railways we find these accidents take place and there is no accountability. The ministers just carry on, the ministry carry on and there is no accountability on the part of the politicians. If the politicians in the railways, when a disaster like this happens, shouldn’t the minister be sacked?

Dinesh Trivedi: Well I can only tell you that when I was the minister, I had told the board that one major incident and you will not find me here. And they all knew my sensitivity. Sagarika we have lost sensitivity. Accidents happens, people die, compensation, life goes on as usual but people who have died there families will never forget this. So yes, heads have to roll. And it is time Prime Minister has to take a call as to what he has to do. Don’t play with the lives of the people. But in all cases it could have been any minister but still.

Sagarika Ghose: Why is it the railways doesn’t take action for those lives lost simply because of an accident? Today was not the only accident Professor Raghuram, we have 15,000 people every year losing lives crossing tracks. This is the Kakotkar Committee report. Now the Kakotkar Committee itself has said that it is massacre. What needs to be done? Should heads roll? What needs to be done, because more will continue to die.

G Raghuram: Well minister’s heads rolling is one thing but what I think is more important is a lot of the solution lie clear is one of implementing. That’s also the Karkotkar Committee talks about that the railways suffers implementation paralysis. For example if you take deaths on the Mumbai suburban tracks, there is no reason why we cannot have flyovers and pedestrian crossings at a very high frequency. Then a lot of the deaths happen in the night when people cross and the lights of the train blind them. Why can’t we have the suburban tracks system lit, after all if the highways can be lit this section be lit? So there are a lot of solutions that are possible. Take this fire accident, train safety system needs to come in place where If any such incident is detected the trains should stop. Then the recovery, you can save lives and reduced the damage if the people are able to get out of the coach quickly. I think our Indian railway coaches are not designed for easy, quick exit.

Sagarika Ghose: Not designed for easy exit. As I have here, fire extinguishers are not there, cooking gas is used in the pantry car despite the ban, over reliance on safety signals, all other measures are ignored. Why is it there are so many committees on railways, it is said to be the most studied institution in India, why is it there an implementation crisis?

Akhileshwar Sahay: See, Raghuram very clearly said and if you look at the Karkotakr Committee report its last line says that the railways suffers from implementation bulk. And out of the all the reports none of the recommendations have been implemented.

Sagarika Ghose: Read out that last line from the Karkotkar Committee report.

Akhileshwar Sahay: It says reluctance of Indian railways to own these causalities which does not fall under the purview of train accidents but are accidents by count of train by no means can be accepted in no civilised society such massacre.

Sagarika Ghose: No civilised society can accept such massacre, the Karkotakr Committee is says these are massacres on the Indian citizens.

Akhileshwar Sahay: Look at today’s accident, it was a fire accident. Railway officials are not trained to take care of fire accidents. Number two, in fire accident, the injured cannot be taken care of in a normal hospital. There 25 injured, accident happened at 5 am, why by 7 am they could not be airlifted to Hyderabad or Chennai?

Sagarika Ghose: So there is no training on handling the fire accidents. Let’s pursue the fact about politicising railways. Railway industry is so politicised that’s why every railway minister, these coaches have no time to be maintained, these coaches have no time to be made fire proof, these coaches are safety proof, in fact they are being used train after train after train. Is the railways suffering preciously because it completely hostage to politics?

Vivian Fernandes: That’s one of the reason but I will not put all the blame on the politicians because the railways has the board and these people are operational. I think there is no safety culture in the Indian railways. The Kakotkar report talks about deaths of 16,000 employees in one year and 2700 injured, do you think an organisation which doesn’t even care about its own employees will care about the passengers? The point is there is no safety culture in the Indian railways. When Dinesh Trivedi was the railway minister he appointed an independent safety panel and when he was removed what did Mukul Roy do, just to spite his colleague he abolish the post of member safety and public-private partnership. So there is independent oversight, you find that there is commissioner safety which is nominal in the civil aviation industry which does after the investigation, there is no safety measure taken and this railway commissioner which is packed with officials.

Sagarika Ghose: Dinesh Trivedi on this tragic day do you have to say I told you so in that speech in Parliament that all I am asking for two paise per kilimeter to keep the passenger safe. Do you feel your words have been proved prophetic, if you do not bring in those revenue Indian citizens are going to continue to die.

Dinesh Trivedi: Sagarika it is said day, all I said that if you do not want to raise the fare then let the prime minister, let the Parliament give the money. If you know that your system is rotten and in spite of that you let the passenger go then I think it negligence amounting to murder knowing fully well that the experts are the best in the country but they work only for the ministers. One minister says safety board, yes, another says no safety board, no, where is the loyalty? Loyalty is more to the minister rather than the railway. They come for two years and then they retire. Let me tell you Indian railway is best in the world, you have a technocrat, you have somebody at the top and give them full independence. Prime minister has to come in, now there is no escape because if a minister like me wanted to implement. Now, it took 4-5 months for expert like Kakotkar, Sridharan, Sam Pitroda and there is one more panellist there. They have worked had and they have given the prescription and they have told how to do it. When you tryto implement you are sacked.

Sagarika Ghose: Is it time that the prime minister asserted himself over the railway ministry and said I will take over it, we will not keep it as a parking lot just to keep a coalition party happy. This is an emergency situation and this is a situation that requires urgent action.

Vivian Fernandes: Sagarika, railway is the locomotive of this country and the prime minister has washed off his hands from this and it is so vital to the economy of a country. in 1997, when there was an accident, the HRD Ministry, Nitish Kumar as the railway minister got the Vajpayee government to sanction Rs 17,000 crore for the safety. A lot of steps have been taken to ensure safety but that is not enough, though accident rate per million kilometre have come down but there should be zero tolerance. I have met official who have gone for a three week study to Japan and in 1960s the Japan train driver overshot a train signal and after that they had a device installed in the cabin which flashes the red signal, buzzer goes off alerts the driver. And still if the driver does not respond the automatic brakes are applied. In 1970s there was a collision and after that a button was installed in the cabin which enables the driver when it sees the train coming in the opposite direction he presses that button, all the train within half a kilometre region are immobilised. In Japan they do not recognise it as a human failure, if there is a failure it is the system failure.

Sagarika Ghose: So there has to be zero tolerance. Mr Sahay what has to be done? Does it requires raising of fare to put system in place or there can be other means for the revenue? Is it possible to raise money with taking political risks?

Akhileshwar Sahay: Sagarika, there are two things, if you look at the Karkotakar committee recommendations, 50 per cent of the recommendations does not require any money. Number two, look at all the programs of the government, whenever the government wants the money for the programs, if railways have to run it has to run with safety. People get hurt in the accident not the railways. What is Rs five lakhs, it is not even six months salary of the railway man. Why shouldn’t the people dieing be paid the net value of the life lost.

Sagarika Ghose: Why shouldn’t the people who are dieing get much more value, get much more compensation? The fact is the deaths on the railways are not taken seriously. Dinesh Trivedi, our panellist here are saying that you don’t even need that much money for safety measures, as Vivian was saying what does it take you just have to fire proof the coaches, you just have to have the sprinkler system to douse the fire. Surely safety measures can be installed without raising large amount of revenue.

Dinesh Trivedi: In today’s modern world given the structure of the railways which is next to the Army, I mean we have the beast of the people in the railways, you need to modernise the railway because the our railway system has become obsolete. To modernise you need to follow the Japanese standard or the European standard. There hasn’t been a single death in railways in Japan for last 47 year. That is exactly what I said during my budget speech that these are the standards I want to reach out to and it is possible if you take away the politics.

Sagarika Ghose: You are politician yourself and you are saying take away the politics from the railways. Mr Sahay as you were saying that the railway ministry is like a Jagir to the railway minister and coalition politics is the dowry for the party which is most dissatisfied.

Akhileshwar Sahay: That’s very obvious Sagarika.

Sagarika Ghose: And as long as that continues there can be no change. It is not the crisis of money it is the crisis of apathy.

Akhileshwar Sahay: There are two things that has to be done, number one, railway minister has to run railways only. Number two, what railway ministers traditionally has done to the governance, the railway official are the best in the country but they have simply not been able to function.

Sagarika Ghose: Let me get you in here, is the answer commercialisation, hiving off the sections of the railway, making it commercially viable, getting in public-private partnership.

G Raghuram: I am votary of that because I think Indian railways is like a big machinery with all these cadres and people with feelings for themselves accountable to hierarchy, but if you really want to make the railway accountable to the end user then public-private partnership is the structure. When we get these organisations and make them responsible for the people then we get a much better responsive organisation.

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