October 31, 2005Public PolicySecurity

The other killer

Railway accidents are killing hundreds of people in India. Yet nothing serious is underway to tackle this problem.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

More than a hundred people died in a railway accident in Andhra Pradesh last week. Their deaths and the resulting rescue operations were overshadowed by news of terrorist attacks in New Delhi. More people died in the railway accident, but as Navin Pareek notes, the media coverage of the accident received far less attention.

But even if terrorists did not seize public imagination, it is amply clear that transportation safety — especially railway safety as it concerns the government — has fallen through the cracks as far as priorities of public policy are concerned. The Indian government operates the railway service which runs on tracks that belong to the government, is protected by personnel who are employees of the government and is managed by administrators who are selected, trained and appointed by the government. The ministry of railways, like the ministry of civil aviation, has ended up as a giant warehouse of pork. Given its complete domination of the railway industry in India, the Central government must be held — solely and totally — responsible for every single death that occurs due to railway accidents. Unfortunately, that is not happening.

Blame and thick hides

The immediate blame, of course, must be laid on the doors of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the incumbent railway minister, who belongs in jail anyway. Accidents such as this one, especially where nature has already been held responsible, are not the sort of things that disturb him. But his stint as railway minister has been marked by accidents that have claimed lives in their hundreds. His railway ministry has not only failed to build the link to Jammu & Kashmir but he himself has faced allegations of helping terrorists get away. Needless to say, with him in charge, it is impossible to even imagine that the Indian government can begin to think about railway reforms.

Supporters of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will contend that Lalu is the price to pay for political stability. They use the same argument to justify the consistently retrogressive influence of the Left parties. They must realise that the price of political stability — but nothing remarkable by way of governance or economic reform — is increasingly being paid in terms of human lives.

Journey of a thousand miles…

Although not as strongly or comprehensively as is necessary, India is at least attempting to address the threat to life and property due to the activities of terrorists. It is doing relatively nothing to address the threat to life and property due to the numerous failings of its railways. The starting point of railway reform — after sacking the incompetent railway minister — is the realisation that the Government of India has no business running trains. Privatisation of the railway network need not be quick or immediate. Like Junichiro Koizumi’s privatisation of Japan Post, the privatisation process can take a number of years. While the process itself need not be short, it is still possible to achieve tangible results in the short term in terms of investments in safety and infrastructure by putting professional managers in charge.

…begins with the first step

The Indian government contends that the peace process’ with Pakistan will deliver tangible results in terms of reduced casualties even as the process itself takes several years to conclude. Why not treat the railway privatisation process’ in the same way.

Related Link: Wikipedia has information on Indian Railways’ accident rate.

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