Human lives come cheap as the government slumbers

Barely a few days after prime minister Narendra Modi launched the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train, showcasing a quantum leap by the Indian Railways into an era of technological advancement, over 20 lives were lost in the simple act of catching a train. The stampede at Mumbai’s Elphinstone Road station is a grim reminder that even the basics are not in place as far as the railways is concerned.

The tragedy has again opened the debate whether the government has got its priorities right. Commuters had complained that a tragedy was waiting to happen at the busy Mumbai station and railways authorities had been warned that the poor infrastructure would not be able to bear the burden of massive passenger rush. The arrival of four trains at the same time and the heavy rains provided the perfect recipe for disaster as the railway authorities were not prepared to handle the surge of people. In short, what happened at the Elphinstone Road station is a man-made tragedy – just like the death of over 20 people in UP when the Utkal Express derailed due to gross negligence by track maintenance personnel.

The prime minister removed Suresh Prabhu as railways minister following a spate of accidents causing one of the highest death tolls in train accidents in the recent past. The stampede in Mumbai has now brought focus on the fact that the problem lies not merely in the running of trains, but the crumbling infrastructure of the railways can also be death traps.

Mumbai’s suburban railways network is the lifeline of the commercial capital of the country but it’s an open secret that the system needs an overhaul. The tragedy has occurred when new railway minister Piyush Goyal is only a few weeks old in the office. He starts his stint under tremendous pressure as knives are already out. BJP ally Shiv Sena described the stampede mass murder and the Congress questioned the government’s focus. Waking up after a tragedy is the worst form of governance, the railways should fix the responsibility to punish those who ignored repeated requests from commuters on the issue.

Causes of the tragedy are not hidden. Railway stations lack basic facilities like escalators. Mumbai’s suburban rail network has not kept pace with population growth. While Mumbaikars take pride in the efficiency of the suburban rail network, services provided don’t meet modern standards. Infrastructure is crumbling and there seems to be no action plan in place to meet the challenges of growing demand. A foot over-bridge costing Rs 9.5 crore had been sanctioned for Elphinstone Road station but it proved to be too late in the day. The disaster in Mumbai appears to suggest that human lives come cheap.