The Kakodkar Committee report on railway safety is likely to meet the fate of many other committee reports, particularly because of the huge scale of investment it proposes in a short time span.

A little over two years after the publication of the Vision 2020 document aimed at catapulting the Indian Railways (IR) into the forefront of world railways, the Kakodkar Committee on railway safety has just published its report, with plans that require an outlay of Rs. 1 lakh crore. And even as that committee's recommendations are being digested, the Sam Pitroda Committee has submitted its plans for the modernisation of IR at a cost of Rs.5.6 lakh crore. In the midst of a severe resource crunch, it would seem that the Railways are faced with a problem of plenty by way of multi-lakh crore rupee plans!

Financial implications

While the Kakodkar Committee has produced a comprehensive report on railway safety within six months — a record of sorts — with many useful and refreshingly novel recommendations, it is in the area of funding its proposals that the Committee's projections are literally “out of this world.” The IR's Vision 2020 (2009), which is yet to take off, envisages an annual outlay of Rs.1.4 lakh crore over a decade with an estimated annual gross budgetary support (GBS) of Rs.50,000 crore by the Central government. Now the Kakodkar Committee has recommended an annual investment of Rs. 20,000 crore for five years, of which Rs.10,000 crore is effectively a GBS by way of a matching Central grant and deferred dividend. In the past, the GBS has not exceeded Rs.20,000 crore in a year. Therefore, expecting a 300 per cent hike in GBS (Rs.20,000 crore to Rs.60,000 crore for Vision 2020 and the Kakodkar Safety Plan put together) for just one sector of the economy from a government facing multiple competing demands and severe fiscal constraints is, to put it mildly, in the realm of fantasy. Such projections only serve to spread cynicism all round.

A report that clicked!

The Kakodkar Committee was set up in the aftermath of the derailment of Kalka Mail near Fatehpur in July 2011, resulting in the death of 71 passengers and injuries to 264, and a few other serious accidents. History repeats itself. About 14 years ago, a similar committee headed by Justice H.R. Khanna was set up in the aftermath of another major derailment in September 1997 (Derailment of Train No.8033, the Ahmedabad-Howrah Express , killing 88 and injuring 400).

However, contrary to the fate of most committee reports, the recommendations of the Khanna Committee were taken seriously and followed up to a large extent. In fact, the Special Railway Safety Fund (SRSF) of Rs.17,000 crore set up in 2001 and the Corporate Safety Plan 2003-2013 (CSP) unveiled in August 2003 arose out of the recommendations of the Khanna Committee.

While reviewing the safety performance of IR over the last five years, the Kakodkar Committee has not highlighted the fact that the target set in CSP 2003 for reducing the frequency of consequential accidents from 0.44 to 0.17 accidents per million train kilometres has already been bettered. The irony is that even as one more report seeking funds in lakhs of crores of rupees to improve safety on the Railways has been presented, there has been no attempt so far to find out what went right after investing Rs.17,000 crore in six years through the SRSF.

What price safety?

The Kakodkar Committee has made a number of references to “zero tolerance” to accidents. While this is a commendable ideal to strive for, achieving it is almost impossible unless there is access to unlimited resources. In contrast, CSP 2003 had, for the first time, prescribed target rate of accidents overall (the number of accidents per million train kilometres) and target reductions in numbers in different types of accidents, sought to be achieved by the end of the CSP period (2012-13). The only category for which the target was specified as zero was train collisions, on the (misplaced) expectation that the Anti-Collision Device (ACD) or the Raksha Kavach would be successfully introduced all over the system by the end of the CSP period.

This leads to the question: “What price railway safety?” The Kakodkar Committee has proposed an investment of Rs.50,000 crore solely on the removal of all level-crossings, for completely eliminating LC-related accidents and casualties. The average number of persons killed in LC accidents over the five-year period 2006-07 to 2010-11 was 145 (According to KCR, the number of persons killed in all types of consequential train accidents over the five-year period was 1,227. Fifty-nine per cent of this was due to level crossing accidents, which work out to 724 in five years or 145 per year.) This works out to approximately Rs.70 crore for averting each death at a level crossing. It may be argued that human life is priceless but the moot point is whether this order of magnitude of investment is practically feasible or even justified in a climate of extreme scarcity of resources.

Organisational change

The Committee's recommendation suggesting organisational changes in the Railway Board for creating a more responsive and effective “ecosystem” for safety on the Railways, while laudable, is overly optimistic. No organisation voluntarily commits “hara-kiri”. The fate of the Indian Railways Report (2001), better known as the Rakesh Mohan Committee Report, is too recent and well known to need recounting here.

The Committee has rightly drawn attention to the “implementation bug” afflicting the Railways. A related disease not mentioned is the “acute policy shift syndrome” (APSS). With each change of government at the Centre or the Minister, there is a tendency to view with suspicion, if not outright contempt and ridicule, the policies of the previous regime and to reverse them. A recent example of the APSS syndrome is the fate of the Anti-Collision Device. What was perceived to be the lynchpin of the strategy to eliminate all collisions by the end of the CSP period has been reduced over a decade to almost a footnote in the Kakodkar Report.

National Railway policy

If implementation efficiency is to improve, there has to be a broad consensus across the political spectrum on key policy issues concerning the Railways such as the growth strategy, organisational issues, financial structure, safety related investments, fare and tariff policy and meeting public service obligations. If there can be a National Telecom Policy, why not a National Railway Policy?

Need for Plan B

While the Kakodkar Committee has brought in fresh perspectives in a number of areas concerning railway safety, there is a real danger that the report will meet the fate of many other committees and reports concerning the Railways, particularly because of the huge scale of the proposed investments within a short time span. It is, therefore, essential to have a ‘Plan B' ready with more realistically achievable targets and investment profile. Near total elimination of train collisions and consequential casualties is obviously one area that needs to be prioritised in such a plan.

Interestingly, two key recommendations of the Kakodkar Committee require no investment at all: an immediate end to the practice of announcing a “laundry list” of new train services in every Railway budget and increase in passenger fares. Will the Railway Minister display his commitment to implementing the recommendations of a committee constituted under his watch, by announcing the acceptance of at least these two recommendations in the Railway budget?

(K. Balakesari is former Member Staff, Railway Board. Email: balakesari_k@hotmail.com)

More In: Lead | Opinion