The other killer

Railway accidents are killing hundreds of people in India. Yet nothing serious is underway to tackle this problem.

More than a hundred people died in a railway accident in Andhra Pradesh last week. Their deaths and the resulting rescue operations were overshadowed by news of terrorist attacks in New Delhi. More people died in the railway accident, but as Navin Pareek notes, the media coverage of the accident received far less attention.

But even if terrorists did not seize public imagination, it is amply clear that transportation safety — especially railway safety as it concerns the government — has fallen through the cracks as far as priorities of public policy are concerned. The Indian government operates the railway service which runs on tracks that belong to the government, is protected by personnel who are employees of the government and is managed by administrators who are selected, trained and appointed by the government. The ministry of railways, like the ministry of civil aviation, has ended up as a giant warehouse of pork. Given its complete domination of the railway industry in India, the Central government must be held — solely and totally — responsible for every single death that occurs due to railway accidents. Unfortunately, that is not happening.

Blame and thick hides
The immediate blame, of course, must be laid on the doors of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the incumbent railway minister, who belongs in jail anyway. Accidents such as this one, especially where nature has already been held responsible, are not the sort of things that disturb him. But his stint as railway minister has been marked by accidents that have claimed lives in their hundreds. His railway ministry has not only failed to build the link to Jammu & Kashmir but he himself has faced allegations of helping terrorists get away. Needless to say, with him in charge, it is impossible to even imagine that the Indian government can begin to think about railway reforms.

Supporters of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will contend that Lalu is the price to pay for political stability. They use the same argument to justify the consistently retrogressive influence of the Left parties. They must realise that the price of political stability — but nothing remarkable by way of governance or economic reform — is increasingly being paid in terms of human lives.

Journey of a thousand miles…
Although not as strongly or comprehensively as is necessary, India is at least attempting to address the threat to life and property due to the activities of terrorists. It is doing relatively nothing to address the threat to life and property due to the numerous failings of its railways. The starting point of railway reform — after sacking the incompetent railway minister — is the realisation that the Government of India has no business running trains. Privatisation of the railway network need not be quick or immediate. Like Junichiro Koizumi’s privatisation of Japan Post, the privatisation process can take a number of years. While the process itself need not be short, it is still possible to achieve tangible results in the short term in terms of investments in safety and infrastructure by putting professional managers in charge.

…begins with the first step
The Indian government contends that the ‘peace process’ with Pakistan will deliver tangible results in terms of reduced casualties even as the process itself takes several years to conclude. Why not treat the railway ‘privatisation process’ in the same way.

Related Link: Wikipedia has information on Indian Railways’ accident rate.

13 thoughts on “The other killer”

  1. Yes, a start can be made towards privatisation of Railways and other Mammoth PSU’s.

    It doesnt take much effort to check if Railway tracks are washed away after record rains and cyclones.All it takes is one dedicated helicopter and a keen eye.

    People will continue to die regularly in MIG aircrafts and Indian Railways.

  2. I have argued that if one holds the minister of railways accountable for railway accident related deaths, the railways will become a little less careless about killing by the hundreds.

    But why bother? Indians are happy funding Pakistani jehadis which will kill a few more hundred people and disrupt life around the country. It all works like this:

    Option 1: Use $25 million to fix railway lines: 500 fewer deaths due to lower accident rate

    Option 2: Send $25 million to Pakistan: 500 more deaths due to terrorism

    Total difference: 2000 lives. Indian leadership chooses the second option. Go figure.

  3. Confused:

    It is really very simple. Option 1 saves 500 lives and prevents 500 deaths from terrorism. So option 1 saves 1000 lives compared to not doing anything at all. Now Option 2 helps with the terrorism death of 500 and kills 500 due to railway accidents. So there are 1000 additional deaths compared to not doing anything at all. So difference in the number of lives lost or saved is 2000 when you take $25M which you could have used in fixing the railways and giving it to the terrorists.

    It is like if A were to give $5 to B. At the end of the transaction, A will have $5 bucks less than he had, and B will have $5 more than he had, but the final difference in the wealth will be $10 compared to the initial difference. So if the initial difference was zero, the final difference will be $10.

    Hope this helps.

  4. Atanu,

    I still think you’re counting twice:

    Say we start with ‘x’ lives.

    What we want would be the difference between the minimum value ‘lives’ could take and the maximum ‘lives’ could take. i.e.

    There are 3 options, lets find the maximum damage each option could cause.

    Option 0: We don’t do anything:

    500 lives would have been lost to Rail accidents and so x potentially decreases to x-500. BUT TERRORISM DOES NOT INCREASE (terrorists dont get additional money to kill 500 more). So, not doing anything atmost costs us 500 lives.

    Option 1: Give it to the Railways:

    Giving money to railways prevents x from decreasing to x-500. The number killed by terrorists does not increase/decrease.

    Hence, exercising option 1 causes x to remain x.

    Option 2: Give it to the terrorists:

    Giving money to terrorists decreases x to x-500. Also, lack of money to railways means another 500 people die in rail accidents, and so x-500 decreases to x-500-500 = x-1000.


    We started out with ‘x’ lives. The three options, all mutually exclusive, lead to x-500, x, and x-1000 lives. No two options can be simultaneously exercised. So maximum loss of lives is 1000.

  5. Confused:

    You are right. As I always maintain, if one cannot do arithmetic, one is doomed to speak nonsense. I did my arithmetic wrong and ended up speaking nonsense.

    I stand corrected. Thanks.

    But just for the record, when I was writing that initial comment, I had first written 1000, then did a re-think, and made it 2000. I told myself that I will think about it later. Then you cast doubt and I again thought about it–incorrectly as it turned out. It is a great lesson in humility that I learn repeatedly that I too can commit a simple logical error.

  6. Atanu,

    I myself was not terribly sure of what I was writing, and being a Doctoral student of math, I didn’t want to embarass myself if I got the numbers wrong. Hence the pseudonym. Although, Nitin probably knows who I am if he uses an IP tracker.

  7. Confused, you are a doctoral student in maths? Well, in that case you are allowed to make arithmetic errors. See, as long as you are a recognized authority on a topic, you can make an absolutely wrong statement and people will figure out that what you actuall meant was the opposite of what you said.

    A Nobel prize winning economist** whose lectures I attended at UC Berkeley would often make a categorical statement and then add as a disclaimer that what he means is either what he said or the exact opposite of what he said.

    **[Well, there is no real Nobel in economics; it is just the Bank of Sweden Prize in the Economic Sciences++ in the Memory of Alfred Nobel]

    ++[Economics is not really a science##. It is just uses a lot of heavy duty maths to analyse the theoretical models and then uses a lot of extra-heavy duty econometrics to give empirical support to those models. The reason it does so is because it is pretty scared that it would otherwise be labeled as social studies.]

    ##[Even though it is not a hard science, economics is pretty hard. My view is that about 0.1 percent of people who profess to know economics don’t know squat about it.]

  8. In the last line of my previous comment, when I say “0.1 percent” clearly what I mean is “99.1 percent.”

    Oh wait, what I mean is 0.1 percent don’t know nothing. Which means that 99.9 percent know nothing. So “0.1 percent don’t know squat about it” is the same as “99.9 percent know squat about it” and so “0.1 percent don’t know squat” means “0.1 percent” know what they are talking about.

    So I was not really wrong. OK, end of confusion.

  9. Atanu,

    Holy Shannon! All this stuff makes Information theory looks easy. Although I was permanently maimed by the probability theory.

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