Two recent articles in these columns on the Ariyalur train accident brought to mind another incident for which that tragedy is remembered: the resignation of Railway Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, owning moral responsibility. That instance is often held up as a gold standard for probity and rectitude in public life. The recent resignation of the Chief of the Naval Staff after the accident in the submarine Sindhuratana has once again shone the spotlight on resignations in high places by those owning moral responsibility for major accidents.
I joined the Railways about seven years after the Ariyalur accident. During a career spanning almost four decades, I was closely involved in relief and restoration work in the wake of several accidents, some of them major. I was also involved in numerous accident investigations. Towards the end of my innings I faced the unpleasant prospect (along with fellow-members of the Railway Board) of a potential collective sacking or “forced’ resignation following a major accident in northeastern India. I was also witness to the resignation of two Railway Ministers, one relating to northeastern region accident and the other for extraneous reasons.
More frequent than the voluntary “moral responsibility resignations” has been the “heads should roll” cry that often follows a major accident. The turn of events that followed a major railway accident about 17 years ago offers interesting insights. A Permanent Way (track) Supervisor in one of the Zonal Railways set about the job of renewing rails near a bridge without putting in place all the mandatory protection measures. This resulted in the derailment of an Express train, causing the death of 88 passengers, apart from injuries to 400. The Minister wanted the General Manager to be compulsorily retired. In a rare show of spine, the top management stoutly resisted this. To cut a long story short, a compromise was reached — the General Manager was transferred to another Zonal Railway. More importantly, a high-level committee was set up under a retired Supreme Court Judge to review railway safety issues.
Almost four years later, based on one of the major recommendations of the committee, the government created a special safety fund of Rs. 17,000 crore to enable speedy replacement of a vast backlog of overaged assets, particularly arrears of renewal of rails. And it is on this ‘good wicket’ that a subsequent Minister was able to ply ‘overloaded’ freight wagons, enhancing earnings that won him the reputation of a ‘turnaround’ and management wizard. More to the point, arising largely out of the systematic implementation of a number of other recommendations of the committee, there has been a significant reduction in the frequency of accidents over the last decade despite a steep increase in traffic. If the only action taken following the accident was the sacking of the General Manager, there would no doubt have been applause for the “strong action” taken, some collective breast-beating — but nothing more.
Glorious return Political figures rarely fade out from public life after a resignation. In fact, often they return to achieve greater glory and fame. Lal Bahadur Shastri went on to become the Home Minister and later the Prime Minister at a very crucial juncture in the country’s post-Independence history. The Minister who resigned after the accident in the northeast, returned to the Cabinet shortly thereafter, holding another portfolio and later again held the Railways portfolio. Interestingly, it was he who was largely instrumental in piloting the creation of the special safety fund. I mean no disrespect to the individuals concerned (for whom I have the highest personal regard), whose actions must have been guided by their own conscience. The point is: resignations or ‘rolling of heads’ by themselves do not lead to positive systemic corrections. That requires meticulous planning, painstaking effort and slogging, often over long periods, the fruits of which may become evident only years later. On the other hand, a high-profile resignation is at best a momentary diversion to the public at large, offering an opportunity to assuage its collective conscience, believing that “something” has been done or someone has “paid a price” for an accident or disaster. The danger lies in an organisation mistaking that for corrective action and doing little else.