Sunday, 13 June 2010

Mumbai's rail toll tops Bhopal

  S A Aiyar,  13 June 2010, 05:32 AM IST


An outpouring of anger and passion has greeted the conviction of seven former Union Carbide officials for negligence in the Bhopal gas disaster. This caused the immediate death of 3,787 people, and the ultimate death of 15,000 to 20,000 people whose lungs were corroded by the gas.

If this anger and passion results in greater safety and accountability, India will be a more humane and just country. The chances of this happening are zero. India remains basically callous and unaccountable. Tragedies greater than Bhopal are constantly ignored and dismissed as "chalta hai."

Consider Mumbai's suburban rail services. Activist Chetan Kothari used the Right to Information Act to get data on people killed in Mumbai by the Central and Western Railway, which run through the city. Answer: 20,706 people have been killed in the last five years. This is six times as high as Bhopal's 3,787 immediate fatalities and higher than even the long-term fatalities estimated at 15,000-20,000.

On average, over 10 people die every day! If Maoists or Islamist terrorists kill 10 people, that is regarded as sensational news. But if the Mumbai rail system kills the same number every day, it is not even considered news. 

The information obtained by Kothari pertains to just five years, and to just one tiny part of the railways.  Fatalities across the railways for the last two decades could run into lakhs or the equivalent of five or six Bhopals.

A similar RTI exercise is needed for people killed by state electricity boards through uninsulated, loose and dangling electric wires. One estimate of accidental electrocution deaths in the 1980s was more than 3,000 per year. It is probably higher today. Again, this amounts to several Bhopals over the years. Here again we see no public outrage, only "chalta hai".

The Times, the British newspaper, used the RTI to get a break-up of Mumbai fatalities. In 2008, 3,443 out of 4,357 fatalities occurred when trains mowed down people crossing the tracks. As many as 853 fell off or were thrown off moving trains. Another 41 were hit by trackside poles while hanging out of doors, and 21 were electrocuted by overhead wires while travelling on the roof.

Cynics will say this is different from Bhopal: those crossing the tracks and riding on roofs were breaking safety regulations and exposing themselves to danger. But in Bhopal too, the Union Carbide plant was located outside the town, and illegal shanty-towns came up around it, violating safety and urban laws. Does that lessen criticism of the gas leak?

Union Carbide was lambasted for not using the best technology available to avert risks and deaths. But do we castigate the railways for not investing in the best safety technologies, and creating barriers to stop people from crossing the tracks? Union Carbide was slated for negligence in a shutdown plant. But the railways continue to be negligent year after year in a running organization that runs down people.

Many of us howled for justice after Bhopal. Many demanded the arrest of Union Carbide chief Anderson. Those convicted last week included Keshub Mahindra, the non-executive chairman with a largely ceremonial position. How many of us have demanded even the dismissal, let alone conviction, of the railway staff, Railway Board members or railway minister for the continuing holocaust in Mumbai?  The non-executive head of the railways is, formally, the President of India. Has anybody demanded that Pratibha Patil be prosecuted for continuing railway deaths? 

Alas no. The public displays not the slightest concern about our dismal tradition of having unaccountable and unsackable government cadres, who remain in their jobs and get promotions despite the most outrageous negligence.

Let me cite a recent PTI report. "Negligence by railway staff caused nearly half of all train accidents in the country during the last five years, official data has revealed. Of the 1,034 train accidents that have happened during the period 2003-2008, 488 of them, which accounts for 47.2 per cent, have been attributed to negligence by the railway staff, joint director of the safety directorate of the ministry of railways J S Bindra said in reply to an RTI application."

There you have it, from the horse's mouth. Yet none of those yelling for the blood of Union Carbide staff are yelling for the blood of railway officials. And so railway negligence and deaths continue unabated.

NGOs and the media suffer from a terrible double standard. They will pounce on negligence by a multinational, and rightly so. But they act as though the public sector has a licence to kill. That is disgraceful.


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