Written by Nirali Joshi.

A spate of train derailments on the Indian Railways this year once again highlighted the critical state of the country’s public transport provision. The accidents led to widespread criticism of the current government’s priorities in revamping and restructuring this public utility (the designs for which have so far been dominated by investment-heavy high-speed bullet trains for select routes,  encouragement of private participation, and corporatisation of its management). The sobering effect of  frequent railway accidents pushed the government to spell out its measures to address the more systemic and critical issues long ailing the system and especially affecting the safety of its millions of users.

The lack of co-ordination between railway, state and local government hampers the adequate provision of track crossing infrastructure such as foot and road overbridges/underpasses.

Plying 8.107 billion passengers annually over 119,630 kilometres of total track, railways remain the cheapest form of both long and short distance travel in India and are widely used by all classes of people. Over-utilisation, track fatigue and reduction in maintenance time combined with underinvestment in railway infrastructure have been stated as the prime causes for the declining safety on India’s railways. As per official numbers quoted by the Indian Railway, train-related accidents kill around 200 persons annually, and there has been a five-fold increase in railway accidents over the past five years.

While the absolute numbers of railway-related deaths and injuries (5.9 percent of total traffic accidents) may seem low compared to road accidents (93.5 percent) and the accident rate low in proportion to the number of people who use the railway system, epidemiology studies from select trauma centres indicate that railway accidents tend to be far more severe, and result in higher mortality and amputations. Moreover, increased investment and efforts toward improving operational and infrastructural safety will do little to address the high number of deaths owing to factors such as track-crossing.

Classified as ‘other accidents’ or ‘trespassing’, such deaths total nearly 15,000 per year. On its part, the Indian Railway clarifies its own commitment only toward effecting behavioural change of track crossers through campaigns and punitive action. On the other hand, the lack of co-ordination between railway, state and local government hampers the adequate provision of alternate track crossing infrastructure such as foot and road overbridges/underpasses. Together with increasing urbanisation and ad hoc transport planning, this ensures that such incidences remain chronic to Indian cities.

Further, public transport in India is considered subsidy-heavy and inefficient, operating under conditions of outdated technology, incompetent management, corruption and low worker productivity. The high level of fragmentation in transport planning, governance and law is particularly detrimental for transport safety, which tends to rank low in policy and implementation priorities for national, state and local governments. For example, the key policy aimed at integrating urban transport planning – the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) is pioneered by the Ministry of Urban Development that sets guidelines for urban development (a State subject). Here, the need for greater co-ordination between different transport bodies focused on the smooth implementation of urban transport and has little emphasis on safety.

In recent years, India’s traffic safety records have gained global attention since the United Nations introduced a target of reducing accidental road deaths by 50 percent in low and middle-income countries. The ‘World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention’ released by the World Bank and World Health Organization in 2004 played a key role in steering global policymaking toward addressing the issue of traffic accidents by identifying them among leading causes of preventable death. Subsequent editions continue to highlight the uneven distribution of accident exposure across age (most affected are in the age group of 15-29 years), geography (low and middle-income countries hardest hit) and modes of mobility (more pedestrians are affected in developing countries, followed by two-wheeler riders). Traffic accidents thus provide a crucial insight into the unequal and uneven distribution of risk and vulnerability – socially, economically and spatially. They also, as the reports emphasise, cause significant loss to national GDP worldwide.

Regarding road safety, India has overtaken China in recent years in reporting the highest number of road traffic accidents. The latest official data (2015) at the national level reveals that transport related deaths have steadily increased over the past five decades. As per statistics quoted by the Ministry of Roads and Highways, the year 2015 saw 146,000 deaths on Indian roads, an increase of 4.6 percent from the previous year.

India’s key response to addressing its road safety issues has been the Motor Vehicle Act (Amendment) Bill 2017, which stricter enforcement, heftier penalties and higher accident compensation. Awaiting clearance in the upper house of parliament, the Bill is currently wading through opposition from different stakeholders. Key among them is the concern that the Bill will enable the Centre to impinge upon interests of the States, since transport is a State subject in India.

Moreover, while the policy focus is on preventing accidents or compensating for its impact, the medical response to traffic accident victims on the ground remains bleak. The Good Samaritan Law (for which the Supreme Court passed directives in March 2016) is a step in this direction. The directive currently awaits India’s States and Union Territories to pass their own laws in relation to it. On the railway, on the other hand, it is very challenging for Samaritans to take charge since railway lands are governed by an exclusive set of laws and procedures, and accident response lies strictly in the purview of railway administration.

Nevertheless, it is to be noted that in a city like Mumbai where trackside accidents cause a devastating 3,000 deaths and as many injuries every year, it is the persistent activism of a few individuals over several years that has compelled the railway authorities to streamline their accident response procedures along the suburban commuter lines. Their efforts have met with gradual successes in the form of emergency medical centres and ambulance services being set up at the city’s suburban stations, private hospitals directed to admit suburban railway accident victims and a more systematic recording of suburban accidents now being undertaken by the railway police. However, the numbers of trackside incidents show few signs of reducing, and the medical response services continue to face both practical challenges and resource constraints to address their frequency. In a situation where commuting under unsafe conditions remains the only affordable means of daily travel for the lower income classes, the sheer number of deaths and injuries along Mumbai’s suburban services are a rife example of structural vulnerability to accidents in Indian cities.

In summary, it remains clear that even as India takes much-needed steps to make up for its transport safety deficit urged by global decadal goals and national pressure groups, its current interventions are a long way from safeguarding a right to life and survival for a large share of its moving population.

Nirali Joshi is a PhD Scholar at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London researching the intersections between urban and railway governance. Image Credit: CC by Indian Railways/ Flickr

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