September has been a remarkable month for Indian Railways. The foundation stone for India’s first high-speed “bullet” train has been laid. The train running from Ahmedabad to Mumbai will cost Rs 1.1 lakh crore and is expected to be completed by 2022. The Andhra Pradesh government has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) to conduct a feasibility study to construct a route between Amravati and Vijayawada. The transportation system based on pressure and magnetic levitation techniques will slash down the travel time of this 35 kilometres route to five minutes. Last month, Indian Railways launched five new trains, extending one and increasing the frequency of two trains. The new trains are Bhopal-Singrauli Express, Singrauli-H Nizamuddin Express, Bandra (T)-Patna Humsafar Express, Bandra(T)-Gorakhpur Antyodaya Express and Anand Vihar (T) To Ghazipur Via Kanpur, Allahabad.
These announcements of expensive projects and new services raise serious questions concerning our priorities and necessities leaving us to wonder if this is only a costly gimmick and zero utility. Leave alone the idea of reviving Indian Railways pathetic condition, the government is shying away from discussing the issues that need attention. Instead, new and fancy project announcements keep cropping up every other day making us remember the famous quote, ‘Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned’.
A recent Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report said that food served in stations and trains are unfit for human consumption. No cleanliness and hygiene are maintained at railway stations kitchens and pantry cars. Impure water from the tap is used in the preparation of food. Waste bins and food material are left uncovered which attract flies, rats and cockroaches. Last but not the least, expired, contaminated and recycled foodstuff and unauthorized brands of water bottles are being sold for passengers.
According to Railway Ministry data accessed from Rajya Sabha replies and Railways’ publications, there were 459 railway accidents between 2013 and 2017. Among these, 255 were due to the derailment of train coaches. In 2016-17 alone, 193 people died in 78 derailment accidents across India. As many as 804 people have died in railway accidents since April 2013.
In the area of safety, Indian Railways maintains its massive network of tracks with the help of an entire department of trackmen. The responsibility rests on the shoulders of 200,000 trackmen who set out every morning with almost 15 kilos of equipment to walk along a 5 kilometre stretch of rail finding defects. The work is extremely dangerous as they spend most of their day on tracks that still have trains running on them. This sheer apathy leads to more than 300 deaths every year. One should keep in mind here that a single mistake by trackmen could leave trains vulnerable to tragic accidents. For years, the authorities have only made fake promises to develop safety technologies for trackmen, however, nothing has been done so far. Besides the huge shortage of frontline employees in the ‘safety category’ of the Indian Railways adds to the saga since 1.27 lakh such posts were vacant in 2016.
Ironically, Narendra Modi himself made his bullet train intentions clear in a 2013 speech. During Manmohan Singh’s tenure, PM Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, gave a speech at the Indian Merchants’ Chamber Interactive Meeting. In the speech, he focuses on India’s image before the world. He said, “If we do small things, nothing will happen. We need to think big, we need to think on a large canvas.” In the same speech he added that in a recent conversation with the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he had explained that as a country, we should do certain things to show the entire world our strength. So he requested the Prime Minister, “Do this one small project. Start a high-speed bullet train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. With that, people will realise the strength of our nation. No one is going to come to sit on the train. Yet, we need to do these things to establish that we are no less compared to anyone.”
The then Gujarat CM also spoke of the ‘Statue of Unity’, a statue of Vallabhbhai Patel, that is double the size of the Statue of Liberty in the US. The idea he refers to has already become the model for the to-be erected 182 metres long Vallabhbhai’s statue in Gujarat that will cost Rs 2,989 crore to build. Intended to be the world’s tallest and biggest statue, Modi wants to “see the world bowing at its feet.”Listening to his mindset behind such an expensive project one can ask that if announcing Hyperloops and Bullets are just a delusion. Are all these an attempt to deviate from the sorry state of Indian Railways?