Katra-Banihal imbroglio: IR says ‘Even experts can make mistakes’; emphasize on dismissal of PIL

Railways questions E Sreedharan’s expertise over J&K line in the Court

katra-banihal linkNew Delhi: Indian Railways has cast doubt on the expertise of E Sreedharan, renowned as the man behind Delhi Metro and the Konkan Railway, in a Delhi High Court battle over the safety of a line being built in Jammu and Kashmir that’s already eight years behind schedule.

The high court had appointed a panel headed by Sreedharan to examine plans for the 111-kilometre, Katra-Banihal stretch after Prashant Bhushan’s Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) filed a PIL on the matter. The railways, rushing to finish the line in five years, has already spent more than Rs 10,000 crore over the past 13 years on the section in a politically sensitive state where the Bharatiya Janata Party is part of the governing coalition.

The railways questioned the Konkan Railway’s “speckled safety record”, providing a detailed report of accidents on the line that had resulted in the death of 71 passengers since it started, emphasising that “even experts can make mistakes”. It also said that, “in stark comparison to Konkan line’s record, there has been no casualty in the Jammu-Baramullah line”, which was built in far tougher geological conditions.

Sreedharan said he would only respond in court to what the railways had to say about his report or regarding the Konkan Railway.

“Whatever I have to say, I will say it in the court,” he said. About the Katra-Banihal line, he said that the court had asked advocates from both sides to tabulate what he had said in the report and what railways were saying. The court will decide, he added.

Sreedharan, then with Indian Railways, and his team successfully built the Konkan Railway two decades ago after difficult terrain had frustrated previous efforts. Being on the coast, the line is vulnerable to heavy monsoon rain that leads to landslides. Delhi Metro is regarded as one of the most successful mass transit systems in India, having transformed public transport in the capital.

Officials said the Prime Minister’s Office is closely monitoring progress of the Katra-Banihal line and wants the railways to take a tough stand on the case. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is said to have sought regular reports from the railway ministry on the line. The railways has promised the PMO that the line will be completed by 2020.

“In fact, when the PM got to know that the main reason for delay of the project was the PIL, he asked attorney general Mukul Rohatgi to personally review the case. Additional solicitor general Maninder Singh has been arguing for the railways ever since,” an official said.

The Sreedharan committee submitted its report in February, stating “the biggest concern regarding the existing alignment is the poor survivability of the tunnels, bridges and cuttings against the threats of landslides, earthquakes, and the security risks arising out of the nearness of the line to the LoC (Line of Control)”. The railways dismissed the report’s conclusions.

“The committee had no topographic sheets to study, no geological, geotechnical, slope stability or seismic study reports to study about a paper alignment which is not even properly marked on paper,” it said. “Therefore, the conclusions of the committee are mere conjectures, fallacious, specious and delusive statements.”

It said none of the committee members had visited the site. “Therefore, the committee had to suggest that the proposed alignment in the report is only a ‘paper alignment’,” the railways said, adding that “the existing alignment is well-researched, well-investigated line where work is progressing successfully without any mishaps or problems.”

The railways also said the committee did not hold discussions with officials and international experts working on the project. “The committee did not consider the voluminous documentation provided by the project team. The committee did not allow presentations from experts, and it did not provide any technical justification and logic supported by any calculations or analysis in support of its paper alignment,” it told the court.

The Railway Board was the sole authority competent to take decisions, including track alignment.

Asking the court to dismiss the PIL, the railways said that if “such administrative decisions continue to be challenged, it would open a Pandora’s Box, making other infrastructure projects prone to challenge and scrutiny thereby affecting the progress of work and as a consequence affecting development of the country at the instance of vested interests.”

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