Railway Workers’ Point of View of Balasore Tragedy
A fatal triple train accident of Chennai bound Coromandel Express, Yeshwantpur -Howrah Express and a stationary iron-ore laden goods train happened at Bahanaga Bazar railway station in Odisha. The casualties and extent of damage to the railway assets in this accident surpasses the record of the last three decades. 294 passengers died. About 1200 were injured. Many dead bodies are still lying unclaimed at AIIMS/BBS. The bodies are yet to be identified.
The Commissioner of Railways Safety (CRS) has submitted its report to the Railway Board. A CBI enquiry has been ordered even as the CBI is not equipped with the technicalities of day-to-day functioning of the railways, perhaps, to ascertain deliberate interferences in the system. However, experts, trade union activists and field workers have a different view of the gruesome accident. The ground realities and root causes seem to be far different from the official version/s.
The CRS report pinpointed the lapses of the S&T (Signal and Telecom) department at various stages ultimately fixing primary responsibility on the signal workers and engineers engaged in maintenance work at the station while S&T officer, ADSTE (Assistant Divisional Signal and Telecom Engineer) headquartered at Balasore, was conspicuously absent at the site where boom replacement work in LC gate 94 was being carried out just 2-3 hours before the accident. The contract labour were also deployed for the job. ADSTE Balasore chased workers to complete the job threatening with disciplinary actions just before the approach of Coromandel Express. As the work was going on at some place in the same station, the ADSTE should have ordered halting of the train before the unfortunate spot. We understand that the software which was supposed to detect all out of course operations did not give any indications and the point drive logic has not taken place in last sequence. In fact, workers were sincerely undertaking their assigned job of remaining alone at a roadside station like Bahanaga Bazar round the clock to attend signal failure at the dead of night. In fact, several posts related to safety were already surrendered indiscriminately. Th unskilled contract workers are forcefully deployed to maintain such sophisticated electronic machines for the shortage of permanent workers. The blame lies with the higher officials who failed to deploy manpower with requisite skills. This is only one part of the story.
Administrative Lapses and Bureaucratic Bungling
The CAG report on railways revealed that the progress made by railways in providing equipment for safe running of trains is far from satisfactory. The CAG, in its March 2021 report, also accused that the central government misused the fund earmarked for the safety on crockery, car rentals, furniture, laptops and foot massagers. Thus, the Modi-led government at the centre has played ducks and drakes with Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK Fund) of one lakh crore rupees.
After the accident a thousand fingers are pointed at S&T department and its skilled workers but the workers were caught in grim circumstances that require them to complete the allotted work at the time of approach of a train without providing any helper. In this accident too boom replacement work of LC gate was going on just before the approach of the train. It is curious that there was hardly any involvement of senior officer in the Division or at Headquarters in the ELB (Electric Lifting Barrier) modification work which is interlocked with signalling system and this bureaucratic lethargy coupled with intimidating staff at the site with disciplinary action amounts to negligence of the railway bureaucracy and not the workers.
In 2018, some changes were brought into effect in the related circuit between the Central Relay Room to the North Goomty with 16 flexible wires at the station. Yet the changes were neither reflected in the completion wiring diagram nor the circuit names corrected on the cable terminal rack at the North goomty of the station.
Even, on 16.5.22, there was an identical incident of mismatch between the intended route set by signals and actual route taken by the train at Bankra Nayabaz station of Kharagpur Division on account of wrong wiring and cable fault. Why DRM and Divisional Signal Engineer, let alone the Headquarters bureaucrats, didn't disseminate the information to the ground level forces for corrective measures? Why was safety organisation sleeping? Had such remedial measures been taken to alert the staff this horrendous accident could have been avoided.
Inadequate Fund Allocation for S&T Dept.
The S&T department has been made accountable for this accident. Fund allocation and manpower are two important factors that determine smooth and safe functioning of the signalling system. According to the annual reports published by Railway Board, the percentage of funds allocated remained the same at about 2% over the past 6 years. There is a need to invest fund for laying Optic Fibre Cables (OFC) throughout the signalling system and signalling functions/gears should be directly connected to the Electronic Interlocking (EI) eliminating intermediate relays to ensure fool-proof safety. The government and the administration officials erred on this score.
The less said the better about huge vacancies existing in signal department which, inter-alia, adversely impact the safe functioning and maintenance of the signalling system. Nearly 3 lakhs posts of group C & D staff are lying vacant, out of which 80,000 posts are related to safety such as Signal-Maintainers, Track-Maintainers, Assistant Loco Pilots, Train Managers, Station Masters, etc. Apart from the existing vacancies, around 2.5 lakh live posts were also surrendered to pave the way for indiscriminate outsourcing / contractorisation of core and non-core activities in the railways. Under any circumstances, core activities of railways related to safety should not be handed over to contractors in the interest of safe movement of train services.
CBI Inquiry for Derailing the Truth
The CBI went to the accident site and started investigating it from the angle of conspiracy and crime. They did not get any such clue. But, in a shocking turn of events, Amir Khan, who happens to be the sectional signal engineer and the team leader of the modification work of LC gate 94 was targeted without any basis. His house at Soro was sealed and CBI officials went to the extent of raiding his ancestral home in Bengal. His only fault was that he was a Muslim and had to undergo torture and harassment. It appears that the CBI was ordered to manufacture clue for sabotage to save the railway minister and other higher officials who are actually responsible for the tragedy.
The passenger safety should get precedence over elite trains and profiteering. But, the Modi led BJP government is only interested in privatisation, contractualization and informalisation which is the root cause of grave violations of safety measures. "Safety first, Not profit" should be the slogan. Otherwise, such tragedies cannot be avoided. The central government, the railway board and the higher officials shall be held responsible for the accident and the witch hunting of innocents should be stopped.