The onus of performance was one of the most widely discussed hallmarks underlined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the recent reshuffle of ranks within the Union Cabinet. Some publications have paralleled the reshuffle to a meticulously planned ‘corporate-style makeover’. Media reports suggested that a team at the Prime Minister’s Office meticulously monitored the performance of each ministry in a corporate style, with presentations made to the PM at regular intervals.
While the elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman as the first woman Defence Minister of India has grabbed most headlines, it is the job of the new Railways Minister Piyush Goyal that will, by the looks of it, attract maximum attention. Soon after taking charge of his new portfolio, Goyal told journalists that the focus of the ministry will continue to be “safety and convenience” of passengers. Two days later, he would know that his task is not going to be a cakewalk.
While dealing with the bureaucratic setup in the Railways and the challenges in pushing modernization must be on his mind, it is the job of restoring people’s faith in the widely used national transporter in the wake of accidents and deaths that are going to be on top of his list of priorities.
Three back-to-back incidents, reported within a span of hours on Thursday, should put this factor in better perspective.
At around 6.25 am Thursday morning, the seven coaches of the Jabalpur-bound Shaktipunj Express derailed in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh. "The accident occurred at around 6.25 am this morning and we have already cleared out the site. All passengers were put on the remaining coaches and by 7.28 am all of them had left the spot. All of them are safe and no one was injured in the accident," said ministry spokesperson Anil Saxena.
The train was running at a speed of about 40 km per hourr which, officials say, prevented any injuries when the incident occurred. Initial reports suggested that a portion of shattered railway tracks were responsible for incident. No injuries were reported.
Barely a few hours later, a Delhi-bound Rajdhani Express went off the tracks near Minto bridge in the national capital. "The engine and power car are affected. Since the speed of the (Ranchi-Delhi Rajdhani Express) train was very low, there was no injury to any passenger," said Neeraj Sharma, Northern Railways spokesperson. The incident took place at around 11.45 am. No injuries were reported in the incident.
A potentially major train accident was averted after locals detected a fracture in the track between Farrukhabad and Fatehgarh, minutes before the Kalindi Express was scheduled to pass, officials said.
Alert locals managed to get the Delhi-Kanpur Kalindi Express stopped before the damaged portion of the track, police officials said. Railway officials, accompanied by local police, visited the spot near Bhopatpatti and the train left for its destination after 30 minutes. Fatehgarh Superintendent of Police Dayanand Mishra said the matter is being probed.
The three incidents are the first set reported after Piyush Goyal assumed charge of the ministry. His appointment came on the back of two major accidents reported from Uttar Pradesh alone in a span of less than a month. On August 19, the Kalinga Utkal Express derailed in Muzaffarnagar district, killing 22 people.
On August 23, the Kaifiat Express derailed in Auraiya district, injuring over 70 people.
The challenge for Goyal
Seen as an efficient administrator, Goyal will have to shoulder the tough task of putting an end to the spate of accidents that have shook the nation.
According to a report in Bloomberg Quint, 2016-17 was the deadliest year in a decade in terms of deaths due to just derailments. Suresh Prabhu informed the Rajya Sabha in August this year that 333 people lost their lives in the last three years in 206 train derailments. There were 1,394 train accidents reported during the decade. Of these, 51 per cent or 708 were due to derailments. And as many as 458 people have died due to train derailments over the last 10 years.
Two additional back-to-back accidents in the last month have dealt a severe blow to people’s confidence in the Railways, the largest rail network in Asia and the world’s second largest network operated under a single management. It has 115,000 km of track length and runs 12,617 trains to carry over 23 million passengers daily.
Moreover, going into the 2019 general elections, the new Railways minister will need to put effective measures in place to deal with the current scenario. One of the measures he can look at is to take a relook at the stance taken by his predecessor Suresh Prabhu with regard to the setting up of a dedicated post of Member (Safety) on the Railway board to control accidents.
Goyal should remember well that it was the continuous spate of accidents that resulted in Prabhu’s exit. Moreover, of the 39 Railway ministers that India has seen so far, only two – Jagjivan Ram and Lalu Prasad Yadav – managed to complete their full tenure of five years. In the over three years of Modi government, Goyal is the third minister to occupy this portfolio.
Going into polls in 2019, Goyal will have to strive hard to put a halt on the increasingly threatening number of accidents. Failing at it could cost him dearly. Ask Prabhu, he would know!
(With PTI inputs)