The prime task of the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe the cases having element of crime. Since the Narendra Modi government has handed over the investigation into the three train accident at Balasore in which 288 persons died, it implied that it perceives as a case of subversion and sabotage and certainly not a simple case of accident.
Since fear of a possible sabotage has been expressed by some people, even political parties, it is fair to have a CBI probe to ascertain the criminal involvement. But a deeper look into the government move would make it explicit that it has ordered for a CBI probe to conceal its utter failure in ensuring safety of railway operations and maintenance of the tracks. The preliminary report has underlined some default with the signalling system. The accident has underscored the importance of stringent measures to safeguard the integrity of signalling systems and the need for a thorough examination of railway safety practices.
It is a known fact the government usually hides behind the façade of CBI probe. The people of the country have not forgotten the ghastly train accident of Kanpur. The BJP political ecosystem had at that time expressed the apprehension of some kind of sabotage. The National Investigation Agency was entrusted to unravel the plot. But till date no report has been placed in the public domain. Even after seven years, the NIA has failed to file a chargesheet. Nobody knows if the accident was the government’s failure or a criminal conspiracy.
During the initial stage of investigation, the NIA had tried to create the impression that big sharks were behind the crime. It had gone to Bihar and even spoke about Nepal connection. Nothing tangible could be ascertained. The entire exercise was not more than witch haunt.
The Modi government is simply spinning rail conspiracy theory to shield the rail minister and some of the officials. It is purely an attempt to divert the nation’s attention from its failures. Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said: “There is a conspiracy to divert attention by weaving conspiracy theories instead of fixing responsibility for the accident and neglect of safety concerns.” As usual the BJP ecosystem will raise the bogey of nationalism and subversion, just ahead of the Lok Sabha election. A thorough departmental enquiry headed by the experts and officials of the railways would have accomplished the task.
Several political parties in Odisha, including the Congress and Left parties, have rejected the idea of a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the Balasore train crash. Instead, they are demanding the formation of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to ensure an impartial inquiry into the incident.
The most important gain the Modi government could accrue out of the CBI probe has been it has drowned the demand for the resignation of rail minister Ashwini Vaishnaw owning the moral responsibility. While monitoring the salvage operation at the accident site at Balasore, Vaishnaw had claimed that the “root cause” of the accident and the “criminals” responsible for it have been identified. Since the reasons behind the accident were identified, certainly there was no need for handing over the case to CBI. This action of Modi government obviously raises certain apprehensions about the real intent of the government.
The worst ever train crash of the century which claimed more than 288 precious lives in Balasore in Odisha on Friday which occurred in the wake of railway campaign to launch high-speed trains amid intense slashing of funds for critical safety related works and maintenance, pitiably unravels comprehensive surrender of the Modi government to the desires and diktats of corporate sector, his rich friends and extremely poor quality of his governance.
Modi has already been held responsible for slashing the funds available to the railway in a blatant disproportionate manner and massive reduction of the man power. During 2021-22, nearly 1 lakh posts were abolished. The modus operandi adopted by Modi government has been quite interesting; instead of directly ordering for abolition of the posts, it has been directing the zonal management to suggest the number of posts which ought to be slashed. The CAG report shows that the internal funds the railways generated for a safety initiative launched in 2017-18 — focused on train collision avoidance, replacement of overage signals and other safety aspects — fell short of the target every year for four years. It is extremely shocking; why the government was resorting to this tactic? Who interest it intends to serve?
A report from India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which had analysed dozens of derailments and 11 train collisions between 2017-18 and 2020-21, had flagged 30 per cent to 100 per cent shortfalls in inspections to assess the geometric and structural conditions of railway tracks. Primarily this owes to lack of staff strength. It could also be mentioned that in some segments of tracks in the South East Region the railways conducted only 16 inspections instead of a mandated 32. Along other segments in the same region, the railways conducted only 3 inspections instead of the mandated 18.
The CAG report, released in December 2022 also noted that track machines lay idle because operational departments did not assign segments or operational problems, or because staff were unavailable. The lack of adequate inspections led to track parameters being left unchecked, with “implications on the overall safety of train operations, including derailment”, the CAG report said.
None would object to Modi introducing Vande Bharat trains. But one question he must answer and this gains most imperative in the wake of the Balasore crash; he desires to introduce this trains for serving whose interest? Obviously not for the crores of people. The Vande Bharat will cater to the needs of the urban middle class or the bureaucrats, babus the business honchos who can afford.
It is worth recalling that Modi had flagged off the first Vande Bharat train between Delhi and Varanasi in February 2019. The railway ministry said in February 2022 that it planned to introduce 400 Vande Bharat trains over the next three years. During the last three years the growth of Vande trains has been quite dull and sluggish and Modi could not put this more than 60 such trains on tracks. It was claimed that the Vande Bharat trains will run at speeds of up to 160kmph and have been flaunted as a “Make-in-India success story”. But the sources point out that very rarely this train runs more than 100 kmph.
The CAG also found that the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK), a five-year safety initiative launched in 2017-18, had not received the expected Rs 5,000 crore annually from the railways’ internal resources for at least the first four years of the initiative. The audit found that while the initiative received the gross budgetary support of Rs 15,000 crore annually, over the four years from 2017-18 to 2020-21, the railways contributed a total of only Rs 4,225 crore instead of the mandated Rs 20,000 crore. The worst the CAG report outlined was “an increasing trend towards expenditure on non-priority works” against the guiding principles of the RRSK.
One thing is quite obvious. Technical fault or failure has been responsible for the crash. Railway engineers and locomotive pilots say that early reports from the accident site indicate two possibilities; a train derailment followed by collisions, or the failure of a so-called interlocking system that diverted a train to the wrong tracks, resulting in the collisions. An interlocking system failure could be an outcome of electromechanical faults, poor maintenance, or delayed replacement coupled with poor human supervision. Employees unions allege that the railway has an overall shortage of 2.17 lakh employees. Of this, 56% or 1.27 lakh are directly belongs to safety category means directly involvement to safe running of train. Due to shortage of staff one employee even had to work for 12-13 hour shift on any given day.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge has written to the Prime Minister questioning the rationale behind handing over the investigation to the CBI. Vaishnaw must clarify will the CBI find out whether the rail tracks are maintained or not; whether signals and interlocking (systems) were functioning properly or not? Will the CBI find out why the budget for track maintenance was curtailed? Will the CBI find out why the CAG report was not taken seriously? Will the CBI examine why the focus of the Railway Chintan Shivir was not safety but revenue? Will the CBI answer why vacancies are not filled up, and why loco pilots are over-burdened?
The main question that Vaishnaw must answer is does the CBI have the technical expertise to investigate systems failure?” It is an open secret that for Modi the common people have no importance. Safety of passengers is not a priority of the government. More than 2.20 crore passengers travel through railways every day on their own risk.
In his letter to Modi, Kharge had also alleged: “Unfortunately, the people in charge — your good self and railway minister Ashwani Vaishnaw — do not want to admit that there are problems. The railway minister claims to have already found a root cause but yet has requested the CBI to investigate. The CBI is meant to investigate crimes, not railway accidents. The CBI, or any other law enforcement agency, cannot fix accountability for technical, institutional and political failures. In addition, they lack the technical expertise in railway safety, signalling, and maintenance practices.” (IPA Service)