Lack of Smart & Dynamic Leadership on Bhopal Division is the Key Reason for regular Disasters

“You are rated not on how fast you have reacted and restored the things, post-disaster; but is rated on how fast you have identified such mishap-prone areas in your normal functions and have tried to fix them in time” says a well known Disaster Management expert.

leadership teamIndian Railways should start examining the efficiency aspects of the Officials working in Bhopal Division due to its geographical importance that which connects the entire South India with the North. Notwithstanding the fact that the Bhopal Division had turned out to be geographically an errant Division on Indian Railways in the recent past due to multiple disasters, a statement was given by the Railway Board Chief on the twin train mishap stating it is a natural calamity, there is no fault of Railways.

However Railways’ forceful statement on this major accident NOT a correct explanation, says disaster management experts.  It would not be an inappropriate thing to dwell into the personal capabilities of the leadership traits of officials posted on WCR’s Bhopal Division importantly – a bunch of lethargic team, observes an international Rail Disaster Management expert from New Delhi.

Any railway accident is lamentable, but more so when it could have been prevented with a little foresight and proper communication. The two trains that derailed on a rickety bridge which was flooded in Madhya Pradesh fall into this category. As usual, we see arguments, even from former railway ministers about why India should not focus on bullet trains when it has not done enough about the upgrade and safety of the existing system. This is not an either-or situation. While bullet trains should be introduced where feasible, the existing network should be constantly upgraded and monitored.

“Regular monsoon patrolling was not being done between Khirki and Bhirangi section as the officials did not find it vulnerable to accidents in rainy season going by the past history,” a top Railway officer said. “We do regular monsoon patrolling only in the areas which are prone to accidents due to rains. This was not the case with this section,” he said, preferring anonymity.

He was asked when was the last time the ill-fated spot of the section, some 25km from the district headquarters, was inspected. However, he hurriedly added that Assistant Engineer A K Pandey of Harda, had inspected the spot, some 150km from Bhopal, about 20 minutes before the derailments took place. “There is no water body or dam in the upstream of the spot as per our records. I think a flash flood washed away the earth and other materials underneath of the tracks, resulting in the accidents,” he added. The flash flood may have been caused due to a breach in some water body (dam) about which we (Railway) have not been told by district authorities, he contended. However, Bhopal Division PRO I A Siddique denied that regular monsoon patrolling was not carried out on the ill- fated section. “We do patrolling in each and every section without taking vulnerability into account,” he added.

WCR General Manager Ramesh Chandra and Bhopal DRM Alok Kumar couldn’t be contacted despite several attempts.

The recent major fire accident in RRI/Itarsi had caused a loss of more than Rs.1300 Crore to the Indian Railways which came as a major shocker for IR. How fast you have restored the RRI could never be the parameter to judge the efficiency of the Division’s performance.  Being self-assured and assertive is acceptable, but when it comes to public services, being  so much confident without being aggressive in efficiency aspects is unpardonable.  Not only the RRI incident, various minor scale technical glitches on the Division are on high side in the recent past, operating efficiency overall has come down drastically, internal politics in the work force are becoming disastrous impediments for proper administrative and operational efficiency in the workforce related areas which clearly speaks about workforce mismanagement; DAR Cases are on the rise in the Division, leave alone the twin train disaster on the Railway Bridge that took toll of more than 30 people in the dark mid night due to bridge collapsing – all which put together unarguably speaks about the efficiency of workforce, officials, and its key decision-making leadership who all lacked proper dynamism and smart functional capabilities put together.

Railway Ministry’s claim that “minutes before the bogies of the twin trains derailed near Harda in MP, Pawan Express had crossed the same bridge and hence there is no fault on part of Railways” is not essentially an proper assertion – an act of resorting to ‘all-normal’ philosophy.  It would be pertinent to mention here that the Engineering branch had not even identified the bridge location could be vulnerable and will be prone to any untoward/worst climatic situations, despite importantly being located in the downstream stretches of a large reservoir and catchment areas in the vicinity.

Minister of State for Railways, Manoj Sinha, said there was no physical evidence of any tampering. He said before bogies of the two trains derailed, Pawan Express had crossed the same railway culvert. “Due to heavy downpour the soil under the track got washed away resulting into the accident”, he said.

Knowing the loose soil conditions in that particular stretch of Bhopal Division, he should also explain why his bunch of laggards failed to analyse the same.  Surprisingly, there is no history of examining any proposal on role of geosynthetics in soil strengthening in such vulnerable localities in Bhopal Division by the Engineering Branch.

Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu have said that Harda train accident was a natural calamity caused by heavy rains, adding that the Commissioner of Railway Safety will investigate it in detail the reasons behind the mishap, he told newspersons in the presence of MOSR Manoj Sinha, and other senior railway officials, who failed to reach the accident site in Harda due to heavy rains, as they claim.  However Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who returned from Harda and met Suresh Prabhu and Manoj Sinha at Bhopal, said weather condition in Harda had worsened so much that the chopper could not land in the town or nearby. How can a common man buy this irresponsible statement by the Railway Minister himself?

Rejecting allegations about railway’s fault, Prabhu said he was waiting for the investigation report. However Suresh Prabhu should remember that he is easily falling in the clever trap of Railway Board official versions, which are wrong and unforgivable. Suresh Prabhu must remember that he is getting estranged from NDA’s core agenda of improving/revamping Railway System as a whole due to such comments.

Around 23 million people use the railway network each day and this makes it imperative that modernisation is an ongoing process. Lack of sufficient budget is a valid reason, but this can be remedied if the government is ready to bite the political bullet.

The answer lies in raising passenger fares at periodic intervals and not just freight charges. But passenger fare is a political hot potato and one which is perceived as having the potential to alienate voters if hiked now and again. It is no secret that vast tracts of tracks are outdated and pose a danger to traffic.

Level-crossings are often not manned and coaches lack fire safety measures. The skills of the huge workforce, which run the railways, too must be upgraded along with the infrastructure. The railways has, by the admission of successive ministers, large reserves of real estate. These have to be put to productive use or disposed off to raise revenues.

In keeping with the government’s push for Digital India, what the railways urgently need is better technology. This can prevent so many man-made errors. This can be used for early warning about dangers on the tracks, oncoming rail traffic and smoother coordination in the huge and sprawling network.

It is true that in recent years, ticketing has improved by leaps and bounds, thanks to technology. But alongside, there have been allegations of the tracks being damaged due to reckless overloading of freight.

A thorough overhaul of the tracks should be the first priority now that two accidents have happened, and so many lives lost, simply because of poor maintenance. The on-again, off-again proposal to privatise sections of the railways should be examined afresh as this might relieve some of the load on the government and improve services.

Unlike in previous mishaps, this time around, the authorities have launched rescue and relief operations promptly. But once this incident has ceased to be news, plans to minimise such mishaps should not get derailed as has happened in the past.