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New Delhi: A day after the Railways sought a CBI probe into the Odisha train tragedy, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge on Monday wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying the probe agency is meant to investigate crimes, not railway accidents, and cannot fix accountability for technical, institutional and political failures. Kharge also said "all the empty safety claims" of Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw have now been "exposed" and the government must bring to light the real reasons that caused this grave accident, which he described as one of the worst in Indian history.
In his four-page letter to Modi, the Congress chief said there is serious concern among the common passengers about the deterioration in safety of railways and therefore, it is incumbent upon the government to ascertain and bring to light the real reasons that caused this grave accident. He alleged that instead of focusing on strengthening the railways at the basic level only "superficial touch up is being done to stay in news". Alleging that the railways was being meted out a "step-motherly treatment" by the government, Kharge also said consistently flawed decision-making has made travelling by rail unsafe and has in turn compounded the problems of our people.
"Unfortunately, the people in charge – your goodself and Railway Minister Ashwani Vaishnaw – do not want to admit that there are problems," he said. The Railway Minister claims to have already found a root cause, but yet has requested the CBI to investigate, he said, asserting that the agency 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," the Congress chief said. He said the nation still remembers the 2016 derailment in Kanpur, where 150 people lost their lives and the then Railway Minister asked the NIA to investigate. "Subsequently, you yourself claimed in an election rally in 2017 that there was a 'conspiracy'. The nation was assured that strictest punishment would be meted out. However, in 2018, the NIA closed the investigation and refused to file a charge sheet. The nation is still in the dark -- who is responsible for 150 avoidable deaths?" Kharge, a former minister of railways, said.
He said the statements so far and the roping in of yet another agency without the required expertise, remind us of 2016.
"They show that your government has no intent to address the systemic safety malaise, but is instead finding diversionary tactics to derail any attempts to fix accountability," he alleged. Attacking the government, Kharge said the train accident in Odisha has been an "eye opener" and all the empty safety claims of the Railway Minister have now been "exposed". "Today, the most crucial step is to prioritise installation of mandatory safety standards and equipment across railway routes to ensure safety of our passengers and no recurrence of an accident like the one at Balasore," he said.
The crash involving Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express and Shalimar-Chennai Central Coromandel Express, which were carrying around 2,500 passengers, and a goods train on Friday has left 275 people dead and over 1,100 injured. Kharge said the latest audit report of CAG makes a special mention of how between 2017-18 and 2020-21, about seven out of 10 train accidents happened due to derailment.
"But this was erroneously ignored. Between 2017 and 2021, there was zero testing of Rail and Weld (track maintenance) for safety in East Coast Railways. Why were these grave red flags ignored?" he said. Kharge pointed out that the CAG report highlights that funding for the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) has been reduced by a massive 79 per cent.
It was claimed during the budget presentation that about Rs 20,000 crore would be available annually, but this was not done, he said and asked why were the required funds not allocated for track renewal work. Is this not being callous about the safety of passengers, he asked.
Noting that the Railway Board itself has recently admitted that loco pilots have had to work longer hours than mandated due to manpower shortage, Kharge said loco pilots are crucial to safety and overburdening them is proving to be the main cause of accidents. He asked why have their positions not been filled yet. "On February 8, 2023, the Principal Chief Operating Manager of South West Zonal Railway, referred to the collision of two trains in Mysore, and asserted for the need to repair the signalling system and had also forewarned about potential accidents in the future due to this flaw. But why and how could the Ministry of Railways ignore this crucial warning?" he said.
The Congress chief also flagged the issue of 3 lakh posts lying vacant in Indian Railways. "In fact, in the East Coast Railway - the site of this tragic accident - about 8,278 posts are vacant," he said. The Congress president questioned the government as to why the was the previous dispensation's plans to roll out the anti-train-collision system, originally named Raksha Kavach, put on the "back burner".
"Why have only a measly four per cent of routes of Indian Railways been protected by ‘Kavach’ till now," he asked. Has merging the Budget for Indian Railways with the Union Budget in 2017-18 not adversely affected the autonomy and decision-making capacity of Indian Railways, he also asked.