Blood on the train tracks and on successive Railway Ministers’ hands

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If I were to be responsible for the deaths of 10 people everyday and an equivalent number of injuries everyday, I would be simply incapable of looking at myself in the mirror. But not so if I was a shameless, immoral and greedy bureaucrat/politician forever absorbed in the pursuit of power and ill gotten gains as well as protecting own turf; unless of course I happened to have the moral compass and integrity of a Lal Bahadur Shastri who eventually resigned from his job as Railway Minister in the aftermath of two separate train accidents within 3 months of each other that claimed 256 lives and wounded several more.

The news about the death of two children who were hit by an express train while attempting to cross railway tracks before yesterday’s Railway budget got me thinking about Mumbai’s local train network and daily deaths and injuries on its tracks. The abovementioned figure is the daily average of 10 deaths and injuries on tracks over the last 10 years. These figures were revealed after RTI activist Chetan Kothari sought details from the Government Railway Police (GRP).

The data from the GRP has revealed that on an average more than 3,500 people die on tracks every year in various mishaps like falling in gap of train, dashing to pole, crossing lines and fell down from running train. The death toll between 2002 and 2011 (Nov) has reached 36,152.

The number of injured is also in the same range with about 4,000 commuters getting injured and the total number of injured is 36,688.

Among the various incidents, falling from train and line crossing are the top killers, followed by dashing to railway pole and falling in gap of platforms.

Back in 2003, looking at the huge number of railway deaths (5513) in a single year of 2002-03, Dr. Sarosh Mehta with support from Centre for Enquiry into Health & Allied Themes (CEHAT) had filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court. The court’s order apparently hasn’t been heeded which would explain the continued high rates of deaths and injuries on tracks.

A significant proportion of these deaths and injuries on tracks are caused by a) people trying to cross the tracks as well as b) by falling off the trains due to overcrowding. The solution to people crossing tracks would be to ensure user friendly foot over bridge as well as effective policing of these to avoid misuse. The solution to the problem of overcrowding would be to increase the passenger carrying capacity of the trains as well as optimize the train timetable using cyclic timetables. Why is it so difficult to plug these two problems when the solutions to these are quite clear?

This would require a management focus on the core operations of running an efficient, safe, cost effective railway service and that’s something that these worthies are not keen upon.  One would expect that the management time on such a poorly maintained railway service with a terrible safety record would be spent on taking care of these issues? But no, going by yesterday’s budget speech by the Railway minister, such precious management time will be instead diverted towards “enhancing passenger/rail users’ amenities” by way of setting up six more Rail Neer bottling plants!! Why would a government rail utility company be interested in setting up bottling mineral water plants in the name of passenger amenities when its passengers are dying on the train tracks in thousands yearly is beyond my comprehension. When there are already so many established mineral water bottles in the private sector, why should a government rail utility get into this business? Besides, shouldn’t the responsibility of providing safe, clean drinking water to people be the responsibility of government’s water utility company?

It is a sad state of affairs when it comes to passengers’ safety and security (see my post on this here) on Mumbai’s locals. The promising aspect is that there are people like Samir Zaveri and Dipak Gandhi supported ably by NGOs like Moneylife Foundation who are working on convincing the powers that may be to take a first step in reducing the overcrowding on Mumbai’s local trains. Please go sign the petition here. But before that go and take a good look at those who have blood on their hands by virtue of gross negligence and insensitivity on their part to solve a well defined problem with clear cut solutions.

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Protecting India’s non VVIP lives and transportation infrastructure

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The city of Mumbai has been the target of most number of terrorist attacks in India. Since 1993, 14 incidents of terrorist attacks in Mumbai have claimed 738 lives and injured 2393 people. Almost 40% of the lives lost (280 deaths) were in train & train station related terrorist attacks, where terrorists either planted bombs in Mumbai’s suburban railway trains (also called as local trains) & near train stations (twice in December 2002, January 2003, March 2003, July 2006) or like 26/11 massacred people at Mumbai’s CST train station using a Fedayeen unit. One would expect that considering these incidents, the security routine at the train stations and areas around it would be the strictest given how easily the terrorists have managed to exploit the loose security routine at and around train stations multiple times. But sadly that isn’t the case at all as I narrate below using my experience of traveling in local trains and intercity trains on my recent visit to Mumbai. After my Mumbai visit, I now strongly believe that those who are in charge of ensuring a secure Mumbai (and India) are a bunch of nincompoops. These hare brained worthies have no idea of how to ensure security for those who use Mumbai’s public transportation infrastructure especially its local train network that is used by 7 million people daily .

One would think that after July 2006 and 26/11; there would be some serious security check routine in Mumbai’s local train network. Traveling in a local train for the first time after I left Mumbai in 2005/6, I was shocked to find that there was absolutely no security check routine at all at the train stations!! Furthermore, my experience of intercity train travel from Mumbai Central to New Delhi left me in no doubt that when it comes to ensuring security for the ordinary train using passenger, our security experts expose their incompetence and their insensitivity to protecting ordinary lives unashamedly. They would not bat an eyelid before spending enormous sums of money for purchasing helicopters for VVIPs but will happily let ordinary people expose themselves to serious risks and terrorist threats in the course of using India’s overcrowded and substandard transportation networks.

Let me corroborate my strong words by narrating in detail the abovementioned intercity travel experience. A couple of days ago, I had a couple of my friends drop me off with my luggage at the entrance of the Mumbai Central station while they went and parked the car. Since I had two unwieldy packages in carton boxes (comprising of two Bose speakers and a Yamaha receiver courtesy a generous gift by another friend) and a trolley bag, I fixed up with a porter by the time my friends returned.  The porter put the luggage onto a trolley and wheeled it in. We walked past a waiting area cum restaurant area in front of the platforms. And then as we walked onto our platform the porter got stopped by a policeman and is asked about the owner of the luggage. When the porter points to me, these are the questions that the police asked me:

What’s in these two cartons?

What is your name?

Can you open your trolley bag? (I did) What’s in the newspaper covered box inside the trolley bag? (I answer bone china tea set and the policeman asks me to close the bag while asking me the following questions)

Where are you from?

Where are you going?

After this the policeman let us carry on. Now, these random questions the policeman asked of me along with the cursory check into my trolley bag hardly makes for a strict security check. There is no orderly system of baggage screening to check for explosives or suspicious looking packages before one gets into the station like is done at airports and at Delhi’s metro stations. Apparently in Mumbai, those responsible for passenger security place their faith in the a) policeman’s skills of somehow picking out a terrorist in a huge crowd and b) his interrogation skills which will most expected to cause the suspect to  spill the beans or caught red handed while handling the deadly explosives!!

After this, we made our way to the platform and I board it when the train arrives. After the porter placed the luggage in the compartment, I went out to hang out with my friends since there was still almost half an hour before the train departed. In the meantime, a policeman with a police dog came over and asked me if one of cartons (containing the speaker) was mine and directed me to come inside the compartment so that he could have a look at it. When inside the compartment, he asked me to take the carton down from the side upper seat where it was kept and asked me what it contained. I told him that it contained speakers. He then asked me to open the package to which I said that I would bring the package down for him to examine it but would not open it since it has been packaged for transportation. Then the policeman commanded his dog “Find” to sniff for suspicious contents and then tapped a little too violently at the side of the speaker with a staff that he was holding in his right hand. I exclaimed that the package contained speakers in them that are breakable and he needn’t have tapped them. He then gave me the advice to stay with my luggage and left.

Maybe people in Mumbai find comfort in seeing a policeman with a sniffer dog jump up and down on trains to hunt down the evil terrorist. I, on the other hand, shudder to think of the consequences that might entail if such unsystematic and incomplete security routines are considered adequate. A security routine that disregards a screening procedure on entry and instead relies on a policeman with a police dog to sniff out suspicious packages randomly long after they have been put away for travel is anything but systematic and complete. I am no security expert, but in my view the cause of security would be best served if the so called security experts at the top of the ladder would have put in place a security procedure that involved appropriate screening procedures using metal detectors, explosive detection/X-ray machines along with a sniffer dog placed right after these two at the entrance itself so as to ensure that no suspicious packages would get through in the first place! A simple screening procedure would perhaps involve the dog sniffing at the packages one after the other while the travelers come in a straight line. I bet my bottom dollar that my suggested security routine would thwart terrorists’ attempts in planting explosives at a higher rate than the current official security checks loosely in place.

The local train users in Mumbai must fear for their lives; better still they should agitate against the powers that may be to put in place tight security procedures.