Mumbai\’s rail toll tops Bhopal

An outpouring of anger and passion has greeted the conviction of seven former Union Carbide officials for negligence in the Bhopal gas disaster. This caused the immediate death of 3,787 people, and the ultimate death of 15,000 to 20,000 people whose lungs were corroded by the gas.

If this anger and passion results in greater safety and accountability, India will be a more humane and just country. The chances of this happening are zero. India remains basically callous and unaccountable. Tragedies greater than Bhopal are constantly ignored and dismissed as “chalta hai”.

Consider Mumbai’s suburban rail services. Activist Chetan Kothari used the Right to Information Act to get data on people killed in Mumbai by the Central and Western Railway, which run through the city. Answer: 20,706 people have been killed in the last five years. This is six times as high as Bhopal’s 3,787 immediate fatalities and higher than even the long-term fatalities estimated at 15,000-20,000.

On average, over 10 people die every day! If Maoists or Islamist terrorists kill 10 people, that is regarded as sensational news. But if the Mumbai rail system kills the same number every day, it is not even considered news.

The information obtained by Kothari pertains to just five years, and to just one tiny part of the railways. Fatalities across the railways for the last two decades could run into lakhs or the equivalent of five or six Bhopals.

A similar RTI exercise is needed for people killed by state electricity boards through uninsulated, loose and dangling electric wires. One estimate of accidental electrocution deaths in the 1980s was more than 3,000 per year. It is probably higher today. Again, this amounts to several Bhopals over the years. Here again we see no public outrage, only “chalta hai”.

The Times, the British newspaper, used the RTI to get a break-up of Mumbai fatalities. In 2008, 3,443 out of 4,357 fatalities occurred when trains mowed down people crossing the tracks. As many as 853 fell off or were thrown off moving trains. Another 41 were hit by trackside poles while hanging out of doors, and 21 were electrocuted by overhead wires while travelling on the roof.

Cynics will say this is different from Bhopal: those crossing the tracks and riding on roofs were breaking safety regulations and exposing themselves to danger. But in Bhopal too, the Union Carbide plant was located outside the town, and illegal shanty-towns came up around it, violating safety and urban laws. Does that lessen criticism of the gas leak?

Union Carbide was lambasted for not using the best technology available to avert risks and deaths. But do we castigate the railways for not investing in the best safety technologies, and creating barriers to stop people from crossing the tracks? Union Carbide was slated for negligence in a shutdown plant. But the railways continue to be negligent year after year in a running organization that runs down people.

Many of us howled for justice after Bhopal. Many demanded the arrest of Union Carbide chief Anderson. Those convicted last week included Keshub Mahindra, the non-executive chairman with a largely ceremonial position. How many of us have demanded even the dismissal, let alone conviction, of the railway staff, Railway Board members or railway minister for the continuing holocaust in Mumbai?  The non-executive head of the railways is, formally, the President of India. Has anybody demanded that Pratibha Patil be prosecuted for continuing railway deaths?

Alas no. The public displays not the slightest concern about our dismal tradition of having unaccountable and unsackable government cadres, who remain in their jobs and get promotions despite the most outrageous negligence.

Let me cite a recent PTI report. “Negligence by railway staff caused nearly half of all train accidents in the country during the last five years, official data has revealed. Of the 1,034 train accidents that have happened during the period 2003-2008, 488 of them, which accounts for 47.2 per cent, have been attributed to negligence by the railway staff, joint director of the safety directorate of the ministry of railways J S Bindra said in reply to an RTI application.”

There you have it, from the horse’s mouth. Yet none of those yelling for the blood of Union Carbide staff are yelling for the blood of railway officials. And so railway negligence and deaths continue unabated.

NGOs and the media suffer from a terrible double standard. They will pounce on negligence by a multinational, and rightly so. But they act as though the public sector has a licence to kill. That is disgraceful.

6 thoughts on “Mumbai\’s rail toll tops Bhopal”

  1. You have your reason and you dismissed it summarily, but that’s really the truth. At least among Mumbai death from Time’s data, 99.99% were faults of people who crossed tracks, travelled on roof or were travelling hanging. Yes, it eliminates responsibility of adult who voluntarily too risks. No, it is not same as choosing to live near plant not knowing that such deathly gas leak can happen. I agree about human angle and culpability of railways in other deaths such as head-on collision or damaged rails – this definitely deserves outrage.

  2. Dushyant Sethi

    Mr Swami, I have grown up reading your columns in ToI and I always held a very high respects for your writings, until I read this piece. I will explain why?
    It is equally appalling to hear that so many people are being mowed down by our national carrier on a daily basis but at the same time that flaw cannot be leveraged to justify other gaps in our system and undermine the efforts to solve other issues. From what you are saying, government should also be included with NGOs and media (last line) for being selective about issues. There are more people dying off hunger and lack of proper health care than terrorist attacks so why make a big fuss about Mumbai’s 26/11 terrorist attacks? Please do not forget that NGOs are mere organizations that operate under serious resource constraint. Each one of them finds it’s own niche areas and specializes in that campaign, weather its Bhopal or corruption in general. They collaborate and support each others causes. It happens so that there are no equivalents of CapEx models that can help NGOs allocate their limited resources and take up the issue that has killed the most people on priority. Your generalization of all NGOs here, is undermining so many people’s efforts to better their society. In some ways you are just trying to compare oranges and apples on the basis of both being fruits and spherical in shape.
    That said, I do agree that railway and transportation safety needs to be addressed soon.

  3. I quite understand where you’re going with this. It’s not that you are striving to diminish the magnitude of the tragedy; instead you are highlighting the deplorable fact that death and catastrophe in our country are not uncommon occurrences (as they should be) and that the perpetrators are our very own. Bad enough we have outsiders, in connivance with our fellowmen, wreaking mayhem; but equally worse is that our own, without any help from the outside cause untold destruction through sheer indifference. I do agree with you. We should be outraged and angered by the numerous train disasters, deaths due to electrocution, deaths caused by the negligent MC/ PWD and…the list can go on. Until and unless we discard our ‘chalta hai’ attitude and demand more from our representatives and from ourselves, human life in India will continue to be held cheaply by all.

  4. Well Sir quite rightly said and proven article and I too think that the Railway system, running amuck, needs to curb this habit of not having the necessary accoutres which are necessary so as to decline this toll. We also need to come out of our usual mentality of “chalta hai” and should raise our voice against this casual behaviour being followed by our Government.

  5. This has to be one of the most poorly reasoned articles I’ve read. That includes the comments on Youtube. To equivocate local isolated acts of corruption and incompetence with the willful negligence of a large corporation is utter idiocy. “Those crossing the tracks and riding on roofs were breaking safety regulations and exposing themselves to danger.” Sure. But did those same uneducated, illiterate people working for Union Carbide, who rode those same trains to the Union Carbide factory know that a water curtain was necessary to protect the population against the lethal effects of methyl isocyanate? In a word: no. They put their faith in a Western corporation. The problem was, that corporation did not view them as human, took advantage of loopholes, and a weak, impoverished Indian state.

    In conclusion, here’s why your reasoning is wrong: if a Western corporation can find more deaths attributable to diarrhea, poor drinking water, poor traffic regulations, women dying in childbirth, etc in India, then in an accident that their corporation causes, then Indians shouldn’t complain right? Two wrongs don’t make a right. Particularly if you’re politically on the right.

  6. This is happening for so many years. Its a pity because most of them die as Medical Facilities are not available on Rly. Stations and they Bleed to death.. AMC – Medical Consultants Association and IMA Mumbai tried to improve the situation by Providing immediate care in the form of Ambulance Service and Doctor but it fizzled out.

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