India’s politicians and bosses are responsible for the conditions that saw a horrific train crash on Friday evening. On Saturday afternoon, as the authorities halted rescue operations, the official death toll stood at 288, with 803 injured.
The Coromandel Express, which runs from Kolkata in West Bengal to Chennai in Tamil Nadu, collided with a freight train in the eastern state of Odisha.
The freight train in turn derailed some carriages of the Howrah Superfast Express train, which was travelling in the opposite direction. Together over 3,400 passengers had been in both trains.
Rescuers waded through piles of debris and wreckage all night to pull out bodies and free people. Prime minister Narendra Modi vowed that “those responsible will be severely punished”. He should look at himself. The glossy names of the trains can’t hide that the rail network is riddled with a lack of workers and safety spending.
Indian Railways transports 13 million people every day, but those at the top want to trim costs. An article in The Hindu newspaper in January this year said, “The Indian Railways is reeling under a crushing staff shortage with 312,000 posts lying vacant across the country, spread across 18 zones.”
It quoted a Mumbai railway worker saying, “I have been working double shifts for up to 16 hours at a stretch because we don’t have staff to relieve us.”
In November last year, the National Railway Mazdoor Union (NRMU) of the Central Railway staged a protest over the number of vacancies. “We want to show our resentment towards overtime and lack of leave causing stress to most employees. This also affects the quality of performance,” said Venu Nair, NRMU general secretary.
Rail expert, Prakash Kumar Sen, lead author of a major study on Indian rail derailments, said workers are not trained adequately or their workload is too high, and they don’t get enough rest. He added, “These tracks are very old. The load on them is very high, if maintenance is not good, failures will happen,” Sen said.
The east coast route on which Friday’s crash occurred, is one of the country’s oldest and busiest, as it also carries much of India’s coal and oil freight, he said.
For bosses and politicians, the lives of passengers and workers are cheap. Just last week six rail labourers were electrocuted to death after a pole they were erecting fell on a high-tension overhead wire in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district. Eyewitnesses claimed that eight people were working at the site without safety gear or switching off the election connection.
Under far right Modi, there is much talk of “serving the poor”. But the attention is all on boosting big business, holding down workers, and then dividing the poor by virulent Islamophobia.
India’s rail minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has promised meagre compensation of £10,000 to the relatives of victims of what he called “this unfortunate train accident”, and £2,000 for the grievously injured. Modi dubbed what happened “the train mishap”.
Modi and his coterie should feel the wrath of ordinary people over the crash.
In August 1999, the head-on collision of two trains in the city of Gauhati killed over 285 people and a year before that a locomotive crash in the northern town of Khanna led to over 210 people dying.
One of the deadliest crashes in Indian rail history happened in 1995 when 358 people died as a result of two trains colliding near New Delhi.
More recently, in 2016, at least 146 people were killed when a passenger train traveling between the cities of Indore and Patna slid off the tracks, and in 2010 145 died in the state of West Bengal as a passenger train derailed and was hit by a cargo train.
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