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Safety in Indian Railways

August 24th, 2017 No comments

Safety has been one of the biggest concerns in the Indian Railways system.  While the number of accidents have gone down over the last few years, the number still remains over 100 accidents a year.  In light of the recent train accidents in Uttar Pradesh (UP), we present some details around accidents and safety in the Indian Railways.

Causes of rail accidents

The number of rail accidents has declined from 325 in 2003-04 to 106 in 2015-16.[1]  The number of rail accidents as per the cause are shown in the graph below.  In 2015-16, majority of the accidents were caused due to derailments (60%), followed by accidents at level crossings (33%).1  In the last decade, accidents caused due to both these causes have reduced by about half.  According to news reports, the recent railway accidents in UP were caused due to derailment of coaches.

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Derailments

Between 2003-04 and 2015-16, derailments were the second highest reason for casualties.2  The Standing Committee on Railways, when examining the safety in railways, had noted that one of the reasons for derailments is defect in the track or coaches.  Of the total track length of 1,14,907 kms in the country, 4,500 kms should be renewed annually.2  However, in 2015-16, of the 5,000 km of track length due for renewal, only 2,700 km was targeted to be renewed.2  The Committee had recommended that Indian Railways should switch completely to the Linke Hoffman Busch (LHB) coaches as they do not pile upon each other during derailments and hence cause lesser casualties.2

Un-manned level crossings

Un-manned level crossings (UMLCs) continue to be the biggest cause of casualties in rail accidents.  Currently there are 14,440 UMLCs in the railway network.  In 2014-15, about 40% of the accidents occurred at UMLCs, and in 2015-16, about 28%.2  Between 2010 and 2013, the Ministry fell short of meeting their annual targets to eliminate UMLCs.  Further, the target of eliminating 1,352 UMLCs was reduced by about 50% to 730 in 2014-15, and 820 in 2015-16.2  Implementation of audio-visual warnings at level crossings has been recommended to warn road users about approaching trains.2  These may include Approaching Train Warning Systems, and Train Actuated Warning Systems.2  The Union Budget 2017-18 proposes to eliminate all unmanned level crossings on broad gauge lines by 2020.

Casualties and compensation

In the last few years, Railways has paid an average compensation of Rs 3.03 crore every year for accidents (see figure below).[2]

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Note: Compensation paid during a year relates to the cases settled and not to accidents/casualties during that year.

Consequential train accidents

Accidents in railways may or may not have a significant impact on the overall system.  Consequential train accidents are those which have serious repercussions in terms of loss of human life or injury, damage to railway property or interruption to rail traffic.  These include collisions, derailments, fire in trains, and similar accidents that have serious repercussions in terms of casualties and damage to property.  These exclude cases of trespassing at unmanned railway crossings.

As seen in the figure below, the share of failure of railways staff is the biggest cause of consequential rail accidents.  The number of rail accidents due to failure of reasons other than the railway staff (sabotage) has increased in the last few years.

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Accidents due to failure of railway staff

It has been noted that more than half of the accidents are due to lapses on the part of railway staff.2  Such lapses include carelessness in working, poor maintenance, adoption of short-cuts, and non-observance of laid down safety rules and procedures.  To address these issues, conducting a regular refresher course for each category of railway staff has been recommended.2

Accidents due to loco-pilots2,[3]

Accidents also occur due to signalling errors for which loco-pilots (train-operators) are responsible.  With rail traffic increasing, loco-pilots encounter a signal every few kilometres and have to constantly be on high alert.  Further, currently no technological support is available to the loco-pilots and they have to keep a vigilant watch on the signal and control the train accordingly.2  These Loco-pilots are over-worked as they have to be on duty beyond their stipulated working hours.  This work stress and fatigue puts the life of thousands of commuters at risk and affects the safety of train operations.2  It has been recommended that loco-pilots and other related running staff should be provided with sound working conditions, better medical facilities and other amenities to improve their performance.2

Actions taken by Railways with regard to the recent train accident

According to news reports, the recent accident of Utkal Express in UP resulted in 22 casualties and over 150 injuries.[4]  It has also been reported that following this incident, the Railways Ministry initiated action against certain officials (including a senior divisional engineer), and three senior officers (including a General Manager and a Railway Board Member).

The Committee on Restructuring of Railways had noted that currently each Railway zone (headed by a General Manager) is responsible for operation, management, and development of the railway system under its jurisdiction.[5]  However, the power to make financial decisions does not rest with the zones and hence they do not possess enough autonomy to generate their own revenue, or take independent decisions.5

While the zones prepare their annual budget, the Railway Board provides the annual financial budget outlay for each of them.  As a result of such budgetary control, the GM’s powers have been reduced leaving them with little independence in planning their operations.5

The Committee recommended that the General Managers must be fully empowered to take all necessary decisions independent of the Railway Board.5  Zonal Railways should also have full power for expenditure and re-appropriations and sanctions.  This will make each Zonal Railway accountable for its transport output, profitability and safety under its jurisdiction.

Under-investment in railways leading to accidents

In 2012, a Committee headed by Mr. Anil Kakodkar had estimated that the total financial cost of implementing safety measures over the five-year period (2012-17) was likely be around Rs one lakh crore.  In the Union Budget 2017-18, the creation of a Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh was proposed for passenger safety.  It will have a corpus of Rs one lakh crore, which will be built over a five-year period (Rs 20,000 crore per year).

The Standing Committee on Railways had noted that slow expansion of rail network has put undue burden on the existing infrastructure leading to severe congestion and safety compromises.2  Since independence, while the rail network has increased by 23%, passenger and freight traffic over this network has increased by 1,344% and 1,642% respectively.2  This suggests that railway lines are severely congested.  Further, under-investment in the sector has resulted in congested routes, inability to add new trains, reduction of train speeds, and more rail accidents.2  Therefore, avoiding such accidents in the future would also require significant investments towards capital and maintenance of rail infrastructure.2

Tags: railways, safety, accidents, finances, derailment, casualty, passengers, train

[1] Railways Year Book 2015-16, Ministry of Railways, http://www.indianrailways.gov.in/railwayboard/uploads/directorate/stat_econ/IRSP_2015-16/Year_Book_Eng/8.pdf.

[2] “12th Report: Safety and security in Railways”, Standing Committee on Railways, December 14, 2016, http://164.100.47.193/lsscommittee/Railways/16_Railways_12.pdf.

[3] Report of High Level Safety Review Committee, Ministry of Railways, February 17, 2012.

[4] “Utkal Express derailment: Four railway officials suspended as death toll rises to 22”, The Indian Express, August 20, 2017, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/utkal-express-train-derailment-four-railway-officers-suspended-suresh-prabhu-muzaffarnagar-22-dead-4805532/.

[5] Report of the Committee for Mobilization of Resources for Major Railway Projects and Restructuring of Railway Ministry and Railway Board, Ministry of Railways, June 2015, http://www.indianrailways.gov.in/railwayboard/uploads/directorate/HLSRC/FINAL_FILE_Final.pdf.

Following the elections of the Vice President of India

August 5th, 2017 No comments

The elections for the next Vice-President of India are underway today.  The current Vice President Dr. Hamid Ansari will complete his second five-year term on August 10, which is in a few days.  While the BJP-led NDA’s candidate is Mr. Venkaiah Naidu, Dr. Gopalkrishna Gandhi is the joint candidate fronted by 18 opposition parties led by the INC.  In this post, we take a closer look at the constitutional mandate and role of the Vice-President of India and how the elections for the post will play out today.

Constitutional mandate as Vice President

The Vice-President is the second-highest constitutional office in India.  He acts as the President in the absence of the incumbent President, and is the ex officio Chairman of Rajya Sabha.  As an indication of his bipartisanship and apolitical character, the Vice-President does not hold membership of any political party or any other office of profit.   Further, given his constitutional stature, the statements given by the Vice President assume national significance.  The outgoing Vice President’s statements on issues like press freedom and welfare of minority communities led to several media debates and attracted widespread attention.

Vice-President’s role as Chairman of the Rajya Sabha

As Chairman of Rajya Sabha, the Vice President is the final authority on the interpretation of the Constitution and the Rules of Procedure for all house-related matters.  His rulings constitute binding precedent.  He also determines whether a Rajya Sabha member stands to be disqualified on grounds of defection.  Such powers make him an important stakeholder in the functioning of our parliamentary democracy.

The Vice President is also vested with powers to improve the functioning of the Upper House.  There have been several instances where the current Vice President has used his powers to address issues ranging from improving the productivity of question hour, reducing prolonged disruptions, maintaining decorum in the House, to facilitating discussion on issues of national importance.

Addressing disruptions: In March 2010, the Vice President ordered seven MPs to be evicted from the House for causing disruptions during the discussion and passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill.  More recently, in December 2015, the Vice President called for an all-party meeting during the last leg of the then ongoing Winter Session to discuss the matter of continuous disruptions in the House.  The remaining three days of the session after the all-party meet recorded 79% productivity, while the House had recorded overall productivity of 51% that session.

Functioning of Question Hour: In another instance, in November 2014, the Vice President issued a direction to conduct question hour from 12 noon to 1 pm instead of the originally allocated first hour of the day.  This was seen as an attempt to address the issue of low productivity of question hour mostly due to disruptions at the start of the day. However, question hour productivity has not shown any significant improvement yet, with continuing disruptions.

Parliamentary Privilege: Parliamentary privilege refers to rights and immunity enjoyed by Parliament and MPs, which may be necessary to effectively discharge their constitutional functions.  When disregarded, the offence is called a breach of privilege and is punishable under law. The Chairman is the guardian of these privileges and can also issue warrants to execute the orders of the House, where necessary.  In 1967, one person was held to be in contempt of Rajya Sabha for throwing leaflets from the visitors’ gallery of the House.  The then Vice President, in accordance with the resolution of the House, had sentenced the person to simple imprisonment, till the conclusion of that session.

The Chairman’s consent is required to raise a question of breach of privilege.  He also has the discretion whether to refer it to the Privileges Committee, and whether to accept the committee’s recommendations.  In October 2015, the current Vice President had referred the matter of a member’s controversial “terrorists in Parliament” remark to the Privileges Committee upon receiving complaints from several opposition MPs.

Role in Parliamentary Committees and other institutions

Parliamentary committees review proposed laws, oversee activities of the executive, and scrutinise government’s expenditure.  The Vice President nominates members to various Parliamentary Committees, appoints their Chairmen and issues directions to them.  The Vice President also nominates members of the Rajya Sabha on various bodies such as the Haj Committee, the Institute of Constitutional and Parliamentary Studies, Courts of several universities such as JNU, etc. He is also on the three-member Committee which nominates the Chairman of the Press Council of India.

So, how is the Vice President elected?

Unlike Presidential elections, MLAs do not have a vote in these elections.  Dr. B R Ambedkar had explained why during the constituent assembly debates: “The President is the Head of the State and his powers extend both to the administration by the centre as well as of the states… But when we come to the Vice-President, his normal functions are merely to preside over the Council of States.  It is only on a rare occasion, and that too for a temporary period, that he may be called upon to assume the duties of a President”.

Therefore, the Electoral College for the Vice- Presidential elections consists of all 790 MPs.  The elections are conducted using the system of single transferable voting that results in (approximately) proportional representation.  The voting is done through secret ballot implying that parties cannot issue whips to their MPs and anti-defection laws do not apply.

Each voter has one vote with the same value of 1.  Every voter can mark as many preferences, as there are candidates contesting the election.  It is necessary for at least the first preference to be marked.  A candidate needs to win a required number of votes (or the quota) to be elected.  If no one achieves the required quota after the first round of counting the first preference votes, the candidate with the lowest votes is eliminated.  His votes are then transferred to the second preference mentioned (if any) on the votes he received.  If no one achieves the required quota again, the process is repeated till either:

  1. a candidate achieves the required quota, or
  2. all candidates, except one, are eliminated.

The upcoming Vice Presidential elections

Let us now determine the quota required for victory in today’s election. The total value of votes of the electoral college is divided by two, and one is added (to ensure a majority) to the quotient to determine the quota. Hence, the quota is calculated as:

Quota    = 790/2 + 1 = 395 + 1= 396

The candidate who gets 396 votes will win the election.  If no candidate gets to this mark, the second and further preferences may be counted until the mark is reached or all candidates, but one, are eliminated.

We know the number of seats held by each party in Parliament. Let us assume that all MPs vote along their party line.  The position of the NDA and UPA is depicted in the figure below at the two ends of the chart.  All other major parties and independents are marked in the middle.

VP quota

We observe that, while the BJP falls short of the quota by 58 votes, the shortfall can be overcome if NDA allies TDP, Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal, LJP and PDP support its candidate.

With the voting taking place this morning, the outcome and results will become clear by later today.  It is hoped that the new Vice President will uphold the twin constitutional mandates as the second highest constitutional functionary and the Chairman of Rajya Sabha, just as his distinguished predecessors have done.