Odisha Train Tragedy: An Unaccountable Central Government Enabled by Big Media

There was a time when the mainstream media would ask questions of the regime. Now it attacks those who dare to ask.

6 min read

"It's 2 AM in the night,

From forests far, far away the howling of jackals

Near and nearer a deepening, echoing rumble

The sound of the wheels of a train!!

The unexpected, the impossible I suspect

My subconscious waiting,

May there be no rail accident."

These famous lines of the poet Muktibodh suddenly came to my mind when I read the news of the horrific train accident that took place between Balasore and Bhadrak in Odisha on the night of 2 June. It is obvious that Muktibodh's poem 'Andhere Mein' was not predicting this train accident. These lines express the apprehension of a different kind of  'rail-accident'. We will talk about that later.

This is a shocking tragedy. About 300 people are reportedly killed. Hundreds are injured. This number is increasing. Those killed or injured are often the most ordinary people in India. Those who can travel only in the ordinary coaches of a train like the Coromandel Express.

Not just commuters, but people like Pinaki Raj Mandal, a resident of Howrah, who make a living by selling tea in such trains. Sujay Jana, who sold Jhalmudi with him, told The Telegraph newspaper's correspondent that Mandal had alighted from the train after selling tea at the Balasore station as he used to do daily. But he noticed that there was some tea left in his kettle. Thinking of earning some more by selling the remainder, he decided to go from Balasore to Bhadrak. After telling Sujay to wait for him for dinner, he boarded the train again. But the train could not reach Bhadrak. Sujay was cooking meat for both of them. Pinaki Raj was not to return to have dinner with his companion Sujay.


For the Sake of Accountability, Questions Must Be Asked

If such details only bring tears to your eyes, it is futile to write about them. What should worry us more is the reaction of the people who matter after this train accident. Because they point towards the 'rail accident' that our train of India is hurtling towards, as feared by Muktibodh's poem.

It is an extraordinary thing for 3 trains coming from different directions to collide with each other. What could have been the reason for this? Who will be held responsible for this? Should these questions be asked or not?

Many people are saying that this is not the time for such questions. This is a national tragedy and indeed, no one should ask such divisive questions at this time. The opposition, however, is asking some questions.

It is asking the government that every other day the Prime Minister is going from station to station flagging off a new 'Vande Bharat', claiming to bring a bullet train to India that runs at lightning speed, while the basics are being criminally neglected. What about safety measures in a system like the railways, which is completely dependent on the coordination of technologies?

Should they not ask this question or postpone it indefinitely? Is the opposition asking these questions only to embarrass the government, to humiliate it? To dismiss these questions like mainstream media does opens the way for other such accidents.

Questions Regarding Funds and Maintenance

The public only knows that the government is bringing new trains. It does not know that the supreme auditing body of India, the CAG, the institution that monitors the institutions of the state itself, after checking the budget and expenses of the railways, has reported that for the last several years, especially for the last 4 years, the maintenance and safety of the railways has been pushed to the background.

Much less has been utilized than the amount earmarked for ensuring safety. 

This amount is to be spent on the signal system, maintenance of railway tracks, repair, etc. But the investigation shows, as the state body itself says, that the fund has not been utilised. There is also a huge shortage of employees. The CAG report says that the attention of the authorities is diverted to non-priority areas. 

These things are being said again and again for the last 4 years. But the government wants to mislead the Indian railway passengers by lighting up railway stations and flagging off 'Vande Bharat' trains.  With scant care for the safety of the passengers, it is claimed that India is now in the era of a railway revolution. On Saturday too, the Prime Minister was to flag off a new 'Vande Bharat' train. But this accident ruined all the preparations.

There was a time when the mainstream media along with the opposition used to ask such questions. Now it attacks those who dare to ask. Earlier, the government felt compelled and obliged to respond to questions and criticism. Now it is relaxed as all avenues for asking questions from the public are blocked.

The government knows it doesn't need to worry about questions as it has the big media there, ready to deal with them. People have forgotten that the opposition is also the representative of the people. It is not a king defeated in a war who is bound to keep his mouth shut under the rule of a victorious king. It has a duty towards the people to play, to make the government accountable, to not let it be complacent. 


The PM's Media Op

The big media seemed more concerned that this accident should not affect the image of the Prime Minister, or even the government. The Prime Minister himself is worried about it. So his publicity department arranged for the public to see photographs of the prime minister conferring with officials in a grave posture. Even in this moment of great tragedy, he did not forget to get his meeting with the officials properly choreographed and video-graphed from all angles to give it an air of seriousness.

It is his habit, but it needs to be pointed out that he found time to change his dress after this meeting before he flew to the accident site. We are made to see images of the PM leaning against a pole and talking on the mobile repeatedly. No one asked from whom and what information he is taking on mobile after reaching the accident site.

Television channels were more upset that the poor Prime Minister had to come to the accident site in such hot weather. The anchors breathlessly talked about the excessive heat the PM had to brave to perform the extraordinary deed of visiting the site.

The most obscene was the beautiful tent that was erected for the Prime Minister at the accident site to confer with the officials, when there were heaps of dead bodies right next to it and there was no provision of clothes to cover them. Coolers were installed inside. So, you know things can be done if you want.

A newspaper reported that the Prime Minister has vowed that the culprits for this accident will be severely punished. What was the need to use a heavy word like 'vow' here? Is he in a war? Also, has the Prime Minister come to know about the involvement of some people in the tragedy without investigation?


With Whom Does the Buck Stop?

Who is guilty, and who is responsible?  It is clear from the CAG report. That report says that necessary expenditure is not being done for the security and safety of the passengers and resources are being used for non-priority things.

Is the Prime Minister, who has repeatedly raised the slogan of 'double engine government' for efficient governance, not guilty of this? Is not his pomp and show all the time, which is actually used to cover up his administrative ineptitude not responsible for this? Or the Railway Minister who is never seen flagging off any new train? Who is responsible? Is it, not the media that has stopped holding the government accountable and has allowed it to play with the lives of the people?

While fixing responsibility for this train accident, we must return to the story of Pinaki Raj. He used to work in the real estate business in  Rajasthan before 2017. He had to return home as business came to a standstill after demonetisation and started selling tea in trains. What can be the relation between demonetisation and Pinaki's death in this train accident?

Are India's corporate world, or are our intellectuals not responsible for Pinaki's death? Had they not misled the public by presenting to them Narendra Modi as an efficient administrator, indispensable for India? It is like making a passenger the driver of a train.

India's train is speeding towards the accident Muktibodh foresaw. Can it be saved?

(The writer teaches at Delhi University. He tweets @Apoorvanand__. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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