Train fire: When populism gets dangerous

Last Updated: Fri, Aug 03, 2012 07:17 hrs

As the newspapers fill up with stories about tussles over the charred bodies of the victims of the Tamil Nadu Express accident, relatives clinging on to hope as they await news of ‘missing’ people, and analyses of why the fire started, spread, and couldn’t be controlled, what should We, The Citizens, feel?

There’s horror at the tragedy, and disbelief that a short-circuit could cause such a blaze in a matter of minutes.

There’s pity for the victims, and for the survivors who’ve lost their kin. Among the most heartrending of the survival stories was that of a couple who later discovered neither of them had been able to help their ten-year-old child out of the burning train. 

There’s anger at the smugness of Union Railway Minister Mukul Roy in demanding why he should resign, after landing up in a luxury coach at the very same platform where the Tamil Nadu Express had arrived with its survivors a day earlier. A report by The New Indian Express said the cost of the coach was estimated at Rs. 1.5 crore.

And there’s despair. There have been so many derailments, blasts and accidents on trains over the last decade or so that most of us must swallow our anxiety every time a friend or relative takes a train. Let this not be one of those, we think.

While India salivates over the idea of being a superpower, and successive Finance Ministers continue to pat themselves on the back over India’s economic growth, and Parsis decide that people who make less than Rs. 90,000 a month count as “poor”, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni ranks high on the list of most marketable sports personalities, maybe we should ask ourselves where all that money and power are going.

Passengers on the train say it took the fire department half an hour to show up. No one was patrolling the trains. The doors and windows were jammed shut. A fire extinguisher? Don’t even ask.

And the worst part of all this is that none of it surprises any of us. We’ve all seen the ‘guards’ snoozing by the doors. We’ve all seen people leaning out of the doors, enjoying the night breeze and views of the rivers below as they smoke cigarettes. We’ve all seen the rats and cockroaches and broken lights and exposed wires, and accepted all of this as part of a train journey. We even exotify those, and the people travelling on the roofs of trains and between compartments, and celebrate such vignettes as part of the Great Indian Paradox.

But this is simply not how things should be in any country, leave alone in a country that believes it has shed the “Third World” tag and is aspiring to that of “Economic Superpower”.

Mukul Roy disregarded the recommendations of a safety report commissioned by his predecessor, Dinesh Trivedi, saying he did not have enough money in his budget to spare the Rs. 20,000 crore it would take to implement those recommendations.

Clearly, India has enough money to commission townships and bridges and metro systems – hell, even enough to donate to what it believes to be poorer nations – but not enough to make sure the hundreds of millions of people travelling on its trains are safe.

Small wonder the railways aren’t generating enough money. The fares haven’t been revised in years. When Dinesh Trivedi tried to bring in reasonable hikes, he was unceremoniously fired for his troubles. That paragon of populism, Mamata Banerjee, believed her party must continue the tradition of no-hikes introduced by former Railways Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, who has since become a regular at Harvard Business School.

What right do our ministers have to boast about the connectivity and the profitability of the railways when they can’t even guarantee passengers a safe journey?

As air travel becomes progressively more expensive, increasing numbers of people will depend on the railways. Under such circumstances, can we afford to use the railways as a campaigning platform for the Chief Ministership of the states the Railways Ministers hail from? Instead of filling up Bihar, Bengal, and whichever state comes next with railway lines, shouldn’t we be looking at spending money to make sure the existing lines are safe?

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The author is a writer based in Chennai.

She blogs at