The recent highly tragic train accident in Odisha has again highlighted the urgency for the Indian Railways to correct their priorities in order to achieve balanced progress on a safe path. The biggest priority must be safety. In recent times there have been funds shortages for RRSK, the most important safety fund, as seen from the fact that during the first four years of the working of this fund, the share of the resources that was to be generated from the internal funds of railways fell short by 79 per cent.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) drew attention in a report in 2022 to the fact that fire extinguishers had not been provided yet in 27,763 coaches where these are much needed and that there was 30 to 100 per cent shortfall in various places in inspections of tracks. Renewal of tracks has been lagging much behind targets and even more behind actual needs.
There are about 1,14,907 km. of railway tracks and it has been officially estimated that apart from this being maintained properly, on average about 4500 km. of tracks need to be renewed annually, but as this has not been happening regularly, a backlog builds up making it more and more difficult with passing years to ensure the safety of railway tracks. It is sad to see that at times luxury trains have been rolled out in increasing numbers while adequate funds were not made available for safety.
In addition it is important to give more attention to needs of passengers of ordinary means, those who have to travel in non air-conditioned conditions and even non-reserved conditions over long distances. The plight of migrant workers travelling very regularly often over long areas in very difficult conditions needs special attention, as also the problems of other passengers from weaker sections. Daily travelers in train, particularly those travelling in non-AC and overcrowded trains, deserve special attention. The problems relating to the overcrowded and dangerous conditions in which many suburban train passengers in Mumbai have to travel have been highlighted time and again but despite this their problems still remain very serious.
On the other hand the railways have been overspending on trains which serve mainly the rich and elite sections as well as on prestige projects. The first bullet train project was budgeted at about one lakh crore Rs. (INR one trillion) but may end up costing close to double of this amount, apart from causing the displacement of a lot of villagers. All these heavy costs are being incurred for serving a route (Mumbai-Ahmedabad) which is already served by many luxury trains, buses and airplanes.
Is this investment at an originally estimated cost of around Rs. 200 crore per km. (an estimate which is likely to be exceeded considerably),justified? Why not instead invest this money on meeting the needs of people who are t present very poorly served by trains? Such questions are not being asked.
Instead, according to recent news reports, now already plans are being prepared to have about 7 more bullet trains at a planned cost of about 10 lakh crore Rs. ( or INR 10 trillion), an estimate which may again be exceeded considerably.
Hence clearly the proper priorities are not being followed, leading to a situation in which even increased investments are unable to meet the needs of people in a satisfactory way. The railways need to be much more careful in deciding proper priorities in order to ensure balanced development of the railways in line with the real needs of the country, its transport sector and its people.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.