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Priorities in Reverse Gear

Jacob Peenikaparambil Jacob Peenikaparambil
12 Jun 2023
The Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge on 5th June wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying that “roping of another agency without expertise shows that the government has no intent to address systemic safety malaise”

The devastating triple train accident at Balasore in Orissa that killed 288 people and wounded more than 1000 is the symbol of a serious disease that has infected the governance system not only the Indian Railways but also the overall governance of the country due to wrong priorities. The worst train accident in the last two decades involved a goods train and two passenger trains: Bengaluru-Howrah Yeshwantpur Superfast Express and Shalimar-Chennai Central Coromandel Express. The accident occurred near the Bahanaga Bazar station in Balasore. The passenger trains were reportedly carrying around 2,500 passengers at the time of the accident. 

According to the railway minister Aashwini Vaishnav, the exact cause of the accident will be known only after the ongoing enquiry by the Chief Commissioner of Railway Safety and the proposed CBI enquiry are completed; but the preliminary investigations indicate a “technical glitch” with the signalling system. The electronic interlocking system - a technical term referring to a complex signal system designed to stop trains colliding by arranging their movement on the tracks - malfunctioned, leading to the fatal accident. In other words, according to the Indian Railways, ‘deliberate interference’ or “manual tinkering” with the electronic interlocking system is the cause of the accident. That is why the Railway Board recommended a CBI enquiry into the accident. 

But there are others who disagree with the initial findings as declared by the railway minister. They suspect that systemic deficiencies due to the lack of proper maintenance and shortage of manpower could be the reason for the accident. 

The Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge on 5th June wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying that “roping of another agency without expertise shows that the government has no intent to address systemic safety malaise”. Some people ask, “Is CBI inquiry an attempt to cover up the glaring loopholes within the railway systems?"

As per an article published in The Wire on 6th June (Odisha Train Crash: Dissent Note By Probe Panel Member Hints at Coverup), one of the five railway officials who conducted the preliminary enquiry submitted a dissent note which hints at the possibility of record-tampering with a view to covering up the sequence of events leading to the accident. 

Governments in general, particularly the BJP governments, have a tendency not to own responsibility for their failures and they try to find some scapegoats. Enquiry commissions often end up in finding the scapegoats as desired by the governments. The BJP has an added advantage that it has created a large number of blind devotees and an army in the social media to defend it in the face of gross failures or even blunders like demonetization. This army has no qualms about manufacturing and marketing any grotesque lies. Some social media users spun out a story that the accident was orchestrated at a mosque nearby. Because of the efforts of responsible fact-checkers, it was revealed that the building in question is in fact an Iskon temple.  What a perverted mindset some Indians have?

Those who hold the view that systemic failure could be the cause of the accident have marshalled some lapses pointed out by the CAG in its report of 2022 on the functioning of the Railway Department. The 2022 Controller and Auditor General (CAG) report has flagged multiple shortcomings. It has pointed out that two-thirds of all rail accidents between 2017-18 and 2020-21 happened because of derailments. The report also showed that the budgetary allocations for urgent infrastructure development like track renewal to handle increasing traffic and improvement in safety mechanisms have been on the decline during Modi’s tenure. The government’s much-publicized anti-collision device system KAVACH, too, is grossly under-funded, and over 90% routes have not been equipped to use the feature.

Another deficiency highlighted by the CAG report is shortfalls in track inspections. "There were shortfalls ranging from 30-100 per cent in inspections by Track Recording Cars required to assess geometrical and structural conditions of railway tracks," it said. 
The CAG report also dealt with spending on non-priority works. "There was an increasing trend on IR (Indian Railways) towards expenditure on non-priority works against the guiding principles of Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) deployment framework. The sole purpose of creating a separate dedicated fund for financing safety-related works was defeated, as safety-related works were held up due to fund constraints," it said. 

The priorities of the railways under the Modi government have been introducing new Vande Bharat trains to be inaugurated by the Prime Minister. Along with less attention to safety measures, there have been complaints about deterioration in the services provided in the ordinary trains.  For the Modi government, perception appears to be more important than a structural overhaul that could have possibly prevented the Balasore-type human tragedies.

The reversal of priorities happened not only in the Indian railways, but in all aspects of governance. Although Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 promising development, good governance, generation of two crore jobs in a year, sab ka saat sab ka vikas and sab ka vishwas etc. what one could see and experience during his regime were demonetization that destroyed millions of jobs, passing controversial laws like CAA and the three farm laws that led to agitations and divisions in society. Development and job creation took a backseat and Hindutva became the topmost priority. Winning elections by making use of religion became the main concern of the BJP and the prime minister. Religion was profusely used by the BJP during the recently concluded assembly elections in Karnataka. 

Crores of rupees were spent by the BJP governments both at the centre and in states for the renovation and beautification of temples in a secular country where the government is expected to keep away from religious affairs. Not only taxpayers’ money was spent lavishly for promoting the religion of the majority community, but also the prime minister appeared to be the main celebrant in the inaugural function of renovated temples and the foundation stone-laying of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. 

Some of the main temple renovation projects executed by the BJP government since 2014 are Kashi Vishwanath, Somnath Temple, Kedar Nath Temple, Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, Char Dham Project, Mahakal Lok in Ujjain and temple revamp in Kashmir. The overall cost of Kashi Vishwanath corridor is Rs. 800 core and the entire project cost of Mahakal Lok Ujjain is Rs. 850 cores. Six out seven Saptarshi statues installed at ‘Mahakal Lok’ corridor in Ujjain collapsed as a thunderstorm hit in the last week of May. The chief minister has declared that the statues will be replaced while the opposition Congress party has alleged widespread corruption in the installation of the statues. 

The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chowhan is on a journey of building a series of temples in his state. On 30th May he laid the foundation stone for Devi Lok at Vijayasan Devi temple in Sehore, which will cost the exchequer Rs. 200 cores. While addressing a gathering on the occasion the chief minister said, “To promote our religion and our culture... grand temples should be built and may the goddess bless everyone. If the temple is built then the youth will be inclined towards religion.” Fortunately, he did not say that the project will generate employment for lakhs of unemployed youth in his state. Another gigantic project of the CM is erecting a 108 feet statue of Adi Shankaracharya at Omkareshwar at a cost of Rs. 2141. As per the media reports, M P state government has announced to develop at least half a dozen religious places in Madhya Pradesh.

As per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), Madhya Pradesh has a high stunting rate of 42 per cent, that is 3.3 million children under the age five are stunted and 2.7 million children under age five are wasted. NFHS 5 showed that 29 out 52 districts had reported more than 52.4% prevalence of anaemia in non-pregnant reproductive age females. Instead of spending taxpayers’ money on improving the health and education of people, the priority of the BJP governments is to build temples and erect statues. But the fact that people cannot be fooled forever with this kind of gimmick is proved by the results of the recently held assembly elections in Karnataka. 

Another area of priorities in reverse is the education system. More than 62% of India’s population is in the age group of 15 to 59 years i.e., in the working age group. India has the opportunity for a huge demographic dividend, but unfortunately India is not able to enjoy the demographic dividend because of the lack of required skills in our young people. 

According to India Skill Report 2021, 65% to 75% of the 15 million young people who enter the labour market every year are unemployable. But the priority of the BJP government is not to improve the quality of education in view of enhancing skills of young people. Its priority appears to be instilling in the students the Hindutva ideology instead of scientific temper through textbook manipulations and introduction of odd subjects which have no relevance today. 

The Indian Express on 7th June carried a weird news. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first school in his hometown in Mehsana’s Vadnagar in Gujarat will be developed as a model school called “Prerna” and will host two students from each district in India as part of a week-long study tour. As per the government announcement, students will be trained there on “how to live a very evolved life”, as part of a joint initiative by the Union and state governments. It is a big question what inspiration will the students get from this project?

When religion is commercialized and religious beliefs become the norms for deciding priorities in governance, the result is disaster. Autocratic leaders and political parties often make use of religion profusely to gain power and perpetuate them in power. Narendra Modi and his party have been using the religious card for many years successfully. But the people will have to pay a heavy price if not today, tomorrow. Pakistan and Afghanistan, two neighbours of India, are examples of religion-controlled autocracies and both of them are failed states. When will the people of India and opposition political parties realize the danger at their doorstep? 

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