Another Elphinstone always waiting to happen: From children dying in Gorakhpur to travelers on trains, India is stretched as users pay little and fewer pay taxes

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Published: September 29, 2017 6:34:12 PM

A tragedy of the nature of the one at the Elphinstone Road over-bridge in Mumbai naturally provokes one of two types of reactions – hang those responsible and we-want-safer-trains-not-bullet-trains – or some variant of them.

elphinston, elphinston stempede, elphinston tragedy, reaction over elphinston tragedy, elphinston tragedy reactionsPassengers caught in a stampede at Elphinstone railway station’s foot over bridge, in Mumbai on Friday. (PTI)

A tragedy of the nature of the one at the Elphinstone Road over-bridge in Mumbai naturally provokes one of two types of reactions – hang those responsible and we-want-safer-trains-not-bullet-trains – or some variant of them. And, given the nature of the Shiv Sena relations with the BJP, politicians from it have already started asking for new Railway minister Piyush Goyal to be sacked, others have brought out an old CAG report warning of the problem with the Elphinstone Road bridge, and there is talk of how this is a “man-made tragedy”. Of course it is, but the sad reality is that there is always another Elphinstone waiting to happen somewhere, given how every possible part of India’s infrastructure is creaking, and there is always a CAG or some other report by an expert body that can be brought out later to warn of the impending disaster – in each case, the cost of repair/replacement is small in relation to the tragedy, but how do you decide which problem will be tackled, which will not?

In Uttar Pradesh, health minister Sidharth Nath Singh looked like a cad when, while talking about the 63 children who had died in the Baba Raghav Das hospital, he said BRD had been recording 20 deaths a day in August for the last 4-5 years – Yogi Adityanath has done well to reduce the spread of encephalitis but he can only move so fast. And Suresh Prabhu lost his job as Railway minister following the Kalinga-Utkal Express derailment – while the poor man had done well to focus on eliminating unmanned railway crossings where 60% of fatalities used to occur in the past, when push came to shove, he hadn’t managed to stop the derailments. But how could he? In 2012, the Anil Kakodkar panel said India needed Rs 1 lakh crore for fixing safety and said it wasn’t safe to use the 52kg/m tracks or the 43,000 ICF coaches – this got highlighted in all the recent accidents – but the Railways is too broke, so we fix what we can (albeit at a faster pace under Prabhu) and leave the rest to God. In the case of Elphinstone or the 8-10 people who die every day on Mumbai’s commuter trains – an analysis in TheQuint says while the locals are designed to carry 1,320 passengers, they carry over 4,800 – the answer is obvious: build more trains, make the stations bigger … but when the Railways loses Rs 35,000-40,000 crore every year in passenger traffic, of which around Rs 5,000 crore is in suburban traffic like in Mumbai, how do you pay for this even if you want to do all of this; and if by some stroke of luck, you get the money, where will the land come from to build new stations and tracks? If you move to the roads sector, we have 5 lakh accidents a year and 1.5 lakh people die in them – fixing this means more policemen, more speed-breakers, better-designed roads …

Fixing all of this means imbibing a certain safety culture that, for the most part, we do not have; and it means getting rid of the corruption that permeates most parts of the country – in the Uttar Pradesh case, apart from the other issues of sanitation that causes the encephalitis, there was an acute shortage of doctors due to corruption in the hiring process. But more than that, it requires money. Uttar Pradesh, an IndiaSpend analysis showed, needs over 31,000 health sub-centres (it is short by 33% of the requirement), over 5,000 primary health centres and 1,300 community health centres (a 40% shortfall from its overall requirement). This kind of a shortage can only be met when we either pay the correct user-charge for facilities or we have enough taxes for the government to meet the difference. Neither holds true for India.

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