Friday, December 25, 2015

738 commuters have died till November this year by falling from Mumbai local trains. The safety of commuters should take priority over the unrealistic bullet train project

N Sundaresha Subramanian | New Delhi December 24, 2015 


Commuters travel by a local train in Mumbai


Railway minister Suresh Prabhu has been spamming our inboxes with his ‘Achievements & Initiatives’ mail. I got several, one was from an irctc id, another was surprisingly from a bseindia.in id. Some went straight to the spam folder. There was a Whatsapp forward doing the rounds that highlighted the explanation why Prabhu’s message went to spam: It contains content typically used in spam messages.

It is understandable that the minister is keen to get the good work he is doing across to the vast target audience of 23 million passengers that use the system everyday. The mail had a 44-page e-book attachment that talked about various initiatives in investment, accounts, human resources and there was even a small section (less than half page) on safety.

The e-book titled ‘Perseverance, Pace and Progress laid the roadmap for 360 degree transformation of the behemoth that is projected to receive investments of Rs 8.56 lakh crore in the next five years. The booklet listed 26 policy reforms and 14 ‘improved working practices.

But, what it refused to acknowledge and did not address in any meaningful way was a major problem for his ministry: the overcrowded Mumbai locals that kill thousands every year.

On November 28, Bhavesh Nakhate, a resident of Dombivli, a suburb on the Central Railway route, died after falling from an overcrowded local train. A video that was shot by a fellow passenger which captured Nakhate’s fall shook the country.

According to a Parliament reply by the minister on December 16, Nakhate was among 738 people who lost their lives by “falling from running trains till November this year. More than thrice as many people fell from trains but others were luckier to survive. In 2014, 799 died out of 2,557 who fell from the trains, the year before 905 died in 2726 incidents. This is a subset of total victims of Mumbai’s locals, which ranges around 3500 annually and includes deaths while crossing tracks and other incidents.

About a fifth of the proposed bullet train route will lie adjacent to these graveyard tracks.Columnist Aakar Patel recently wondered how will we run 300 km/hour bullet trains safely in a country where buffaloes walk into aeroplanes and people die on tracks in the dozens everyday.

As public outcry mounted after the Nakhate incident, the ministry has asked the local railways to form committees which are to submit reports by end of the month. Usual suspects are all there and many commuters have met the move with usual skepticism.

The minister’s reply which came after the setting up of these committees has not been very encouraging. To a question by Shiv Sena MPs Rahul Shewale, Shrikant Shinde and Vinayak Raut and BJP’s Gopal Shetty which sought the “details of safety measures the government proposes to take in Mumbai local trains on the line of Metro trains to decongest stations”, the minister categorically said, “At present, it is not found feasible to decongest suburban stations on the pattern of Metro Railway owing to infrastructural /resource constraints.”

The metro networks which are coming up in major cities across the country has shown Mumbai’s commuters what they deserve and have been missing all along. To reject it outrightly was not a very empathetic response from a person who hails from Mumbai. So what are these committees going to suggest then? The same half-measures that have been parroted for forty years now : Decongestion, doors, more trains blah, blah?

Surprisingly, the ministry showed an absolute lack of application of mind to this grave problem while replying to the members’ questions on whether the trains are overcrowded? The ministry’s reply was that ticket sales has shown a downward trend adding, “However, the sale of unreserved tickets are not train specific and hence the details of train specific occupancy/overcrowding cannot be determined.”

If this is the level of understanding of the problem among Delhi’s babus who drafted these replies, no number of committees is going to stop the killer local. It is not just the parliament reply.

The only line in the entire document that is being mailed by Suresh Prabhu that talks about Mumbai local came under ‘Improved Working Practices’. It said. “Five stainless steel AC EMU rakes manufactured at ICF equipped with IGBT based 3-phase propulsion system for Mumbai suburban with speed potential of 110 Kmph.’ It is my humble opinion that it is sadistic to put such kind of jargon in a communication addressed to the masses. Anyway, AC is air conditioned, EMU is not that flightless bird which Tamil people converted into an investment scam but stands for Electric Multiple Unit, ICF is Integral Coach Factory in Chennai and IGBT is some contraption that helps the train use energy efficiently and travel faster. That gives some half hope. But, is that it?

Looks like the ministry has more belief in the collective forgetfulness of the busy Mumbaikar than its own ability to provide the Mumbai commuters with the basic safety standards they deserve.

One of the inspiring quotes Prabhu has used in his booklet came from Christopher Columbus. It said: “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to leave sight of the shore”

Prabhu should gather the courage to provide Mumbai commuters a modern safe railway system as compared to the killing machine existing today. Of course, it will take time, effort and resources. But, if a Mumbaikar won’t do this for Mumbai, who else would?

I am sure our Amdavadi Bhais wouldn’t mind it if that delays their bullet train a bit.

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