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Lack of Safety in India’s Fatalism – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

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Lack of Safety in India’s Fatalism - IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

TK Arun

Public safety isn’t a priority in the Indian mindset. So we are irresponsible when we drive on roads and railways, and negligence or worse is often not punished.

In the wake of one of the worst train accidents last Friday at Balasore, Odisha, journalists have turned an unsparing spotlight on rail safety. Many unsavoury features of Indian Railways now stand exposed in the glare of public scrutiny, ranging from the systematic underfunding of the rail safety fund and the snail -pace rollout of the rail safety mechanism, Kavach, to the damning CAG report on train derailments, and the sorry state of the Railways’ finances.

In the wake of one of the worst train accidents last Friday at Balasore, Odisha, journalists have turned an unsparing spotlight on rail safety. Many unsavoury features of Indian Railways now stand exposed in the glare of public scrutiny, ranging from the systematic underfunding of the rail safety fund and the snail -pace rollout of the rail safety mechanism, Kavach, to the damning CAG report on train derailments, and the sorry state of the Railways’ finances.

The Railways routinely spends more than it earns, thereby slowly drowning, in a growing pool of debt service obligations, its ability to spend on the things that matter, such as filling crucial vacancies.

Problems of safety related to Indian Railways

What does not get sufficient attention is the cultural deficit that blights the Indian attitude towards safety, among other things. Take, for example, the website of the Commission of Railway Safety. You might be slightly disappointed by the fact that the latest annual report is for 2019-20. But, undeterred, if you click on the link for the latest news, you are informed that “Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry”. Fascinating stuff, no doubt, for the collector of the trivia, but not really the seeker of the latest in rail safety.

Sunday’s newspapers carried the report of a six-year-old in Mumbai being electrocuted to death from a live wire hanging loose on the street. The number of those dying from accidental electric shock has risen from some 11,000 in 2011-12 to 13,446 in 2020.

Do we read this as an indicator of widespread, institutionalised disregard for safety or as an indicator of the happy spread of electricity connections in India? We will have some helpful economists point out, as well, the decrease, hiding behind this absolute rise in shocking numbers, of deaths per connected household.

Is India concerned related to the safety of her Railways?

India leads the world in road fatalities. Upwards of 1.5 lakh people- men, women and children who earn for their families or simply embody the love and aspirations of so many more- turn into mere roadkill, obstructive inconvenience for the rest of the traffic. Yet, we bristle at speed limits, having to wear helmets or keep our cars off bike lanes and pavements, being fined for not wearing our seat belts, and having to shell out extra money for additional airbags.

In February this year, Sampark Kranti Express from Bangalore to New Delhi avoided a head-on collision with a stationary train on tracks, only because a vigilant locomotive pilot saw the looming threat and applied the break.

The principal chief operations manager of South Central Railway then submitted a report pointing out systematic flaws in the interlocking system of the Railways that rely on showing the green signal to a train coincides with the switching of the points to let the train run on its intended track.

The Railways have people who are supposed to maintain their electronic systems. The functionaries may manually override the electronic signalling, defeating the so-called interlocking of the two processes, of switching points to align the track and showing the green signal to the train.

Those who do such unauthorised manual override should be prosecuted with culpable homicide. In fact, it should have been done when it came to light in February in Karnataka. That would have deterred such aficionados of manual labour, including the ones in Balasore, whose exertions in this regard probably led to the signalling error that directed Coromandel Express onto the loop line where a goods train had been diverted, to vacate the main line for the passenger train in question.

Or the electronics could have been modified, to avoid the systemic flaw the South Central Railway officer has pointed out. The electronics should flag any attempt at a manual override.

The failure to act on such a key alert can be traced to a culture of fatalism. Taking responsibility for one’s actions assumes a fair degree of agency on the part of the individual in question. Those who believe things happen as destined or as per God’s will are less committed to deliberate, conscientious action than those who know their actions have consequences, for good or for ill.

Gleaming skyrises and eight-lane expressways do symbolise modernity. But modernity of the kind that leads to critical thinking, scientific advances and innovations that do not mimic Western successes comes from rational individuals. Ritualistic religiosity, distinct from spirituality, as well as subsuming of the self in ascribed group identities, militate against such modernity.

Institutionalised safety, modern individualism, and functional governance systems are so intermeshed as to render progress on one while regressing on other fronts simply unsustainable. Groupthink, blaming the stars for what befalls this-worldly mortals feed India’s callous concern for safety. What happened at Balasore is but one instance of tradition triumphing over modernity.

The article was first published in The Times of India as How Safety Takes a Backseat in Fatalistic India on June 4, 2023.

Read more by the author: Burnishing the sheen of AT1 Bonds.

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