3 questions to Sushovan Dhar on the disastrous train accident in India

22 June by Sushovan Dhar , Robin Delobel

The fatal train disaster in the eastern state of Odisha on June 2 is the country’s worst in more than 25 years. Indian Prime Minister Modi has blamed the local railway employees, as was done in Greece after the recent accident. However, can the political authorities walk away scot-free?

More than 280 people were killed and 1,175 were injured in the horrifying railway catastrophe in Balasore, Odisha, on June 2. This event was caused by a series of utter irresponsibility, significant system failures, and incompetence. Indian Railways’ first internal inquiry concluded that a signalling system malfunction most likely caused Friday’s train tragedy in Odisha. Officials from the railway board, however, had already raised worry over the delay to begin safety measures in February and warned of “serious flaws in the system.” They had even demanded that something be done right away.

Worse still, following another recent incident, the authorities stated that it was possible that the interlocking system had serious shortcomings. One of these shortcomings even meant that a station manager could not follow the route taken by a train. This is an alarming similarity to what appears to have happened in the Odisha rail accident, which claimed the lives of nearly 300 people.

Derailments caused 70% of rail accidents, up from 68% the year before, according to an older government report on rail safety for the years 2019–2020. The second most common cause of accidents, accounting for 14% and 8%, respectively, were fires and train collisions. The report details 40 derailments that occurred during the period under review year, involving 33 passenger trains and 7 goods trains. Of these, track defects—which might include track fractures and subsidence—were at blame for 17 of the derailments. Billions have been invested on modernising and enhancing the railroads under the current administration, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including a goal to electrify all of the trains by 2024. There is an official target of achieving zero accidents by 2030. The companies are about to install an anti-collision system, which allows trains to brake automatically, but for the moment it is only operational on 2% of the network.

Recently, record funds have been allocated to improving infrastructure and safety.
But it mainly concerns the Vande Bharat (which means “salute to India”) electric high-speed train, inspired by Japanese high-speed trains, and the stations and infrastructure that go with it. It is one of Mr. Modi’s flagship projects.

According to experts, while the emphasis has been on brilliant modernisation projects, safety remains the main problem for the Indian railways. More trains have been put on the tracks to meet demand, but the workforce has not increased at the same rate. This has led to greater pressure on staff and more human error. In addition, the implementation of safety measures has been slow.

The railways’ meagre resources are regularly diverted from safety to the high-speed train project, which will be used by a handful of Indians. All attention is focused on the photo shoots for the inauguration of the Vande Bharat trains. This horrible accident was a predictable disaster.

What is the media coverage in India? Are they talking about the causes of the accident?

An accident of this magnitude could not be hidden, so the media naturally made a lot of noise. However, the main effort has been to defend the incumbent administration and pin the responsibility on railway employees. The deliberate disregard for railway safety, attempts to privatise the railroads, the decrease in the number of trains for regular passengers, and other issues plaguing the Indian railroads are all mentioned in surprisingly few reports.

However, the media says nothing about the government’s terribly uneven approach, which has done away with the exercise of presenting a separate railway budget every year, which used to allow a lot of information to be disseminated about the overall health of the railways. Nor do they say anything about the successive appointments of railway ministers who have no understanding of the realities on the ground and no desire to assess them.

In the face of this predicament, how are trade-unions and left-wing movements organising?

The catastrophic and systematic deterioration of India’s railways has sparked widespread protests across the country. The Modi administration’s disproportionate emphasis on flashy Vande Bharat trains, station renovation projects through privatisation, and the purchase of fashionable coaches has resulted in “disastrous neglect” of the railways’ critical needs for track, signalling, and infrastructure modernisation.

This situation needs to be brought to light and made public. All Indians must hear the cries and sufferings of the parents and relatives of those who have died in this disaster. Legal action can be pursued, but the court system is currently in disarray, with a good number of members of the judiciary serving as mouthpieces for the government rather than dispensing justice.

The trade unions’ collective strength is currently at an all-time low. Trade unions have been unable to effectively oppose the government’s efforts to bypass them and impose anti-worker labour laws in the country. As I have already stated, the vast majority of Indian workers are forced to work in deplorable conditions of insecurity, with workplace accidents becoming the norm rather than the exception. To address the difficulties posed by the ruling class, the Indian labour movement must reinvent itself.

Translation : Sushovan Dhar

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Robin Delobel

CADTM Belgique

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