There has been a chorus of demands by politicians as also by the media that Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee should resign owning moral responsibility for the ghastly accident at the Sainthia Junction in West Bengal in the early hours of July 19, which killed 63 people and injured nearly 100 other passengers.
Since the last forty years that this reporter has been “covering” the Ministry of Railways, he has not found any Railway Minister resigning or being allowed to resign by Prime Ministers on ground that he or she is morally responsible for the accident which killed a large number of passengers except for the great Lal Bahadur Shastri and the NDA Railway Minister, Nitish Kumar.
Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri had taken over as the Railway Minister after probably N Gopalaswamy Ayyangar or other leader.
During his tenure, a very unfortunate accident took place near Mahbubnagar in Andhra Pradesh near where a metre gauge train had jumped into the Krishna river, killing probably 600 passengers. (The actual fact of the train plunging into the Krishna and the number of passengers killed are subject to correction). The accident had taken place during the monsoon period of 1956.
Very soon, thereafter, a bridge near the Arialur station in Tamil Nadu on the chord line towards Tiruchipalli had collapsed when a metre guage train was passing over it. The casualty figures were high. It was enough for the great man such as Lal Bahadur Shastri and he offered to resign. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had reluctantly accepted the resignation. The second exception was Nitish Kumar. This was in August 2001, after the horrendous Gaisal accident north of Kishanganj Railway station on the North East Frontier Railway (Maldah-New Jalpaiguri section) on probably August 2, when a Guwahati-bound train from Delhi and a train from Guwahati towards Delhi-Bhiwani had a head-on collision which had
killed about 280 passengers and injured perhaps 300 more.
Mr Nitish Kumar, who was then the Minister of Railways, had not hesitated even for a moment before tendering his resignation and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, considering the gravity of the mishap acceded to the request of Nitish Kumar to resign. One does not recall a similar gesture on the part of any Railway Minister since then. There were, however, two other Railway Ministers who had accepted their moral responsibility and had offered to resign.
One was the wellknown Socialist leader Madhu Dandwate. Although he was at the forefront of the Railway strike of May 8, 1974, along with George Fernandes, he had accepted the offer of Prime Minister Morarjibhai Desai, of the Janata Party government, to become the Railway Minister. Within three months, news came from Tezpur in Assam that a serious accident had taken place between Rangapar and North Lakhimpur where a bridge had breached because of the unusually heavy rains and a passenger-carrying metre gauge train had plunged into the river causing deaths of several passengers. Dandwate visited the site and afterwards started chanting that he must resign owning moral responsibility for this accident. Prime Minister Morarjibhai Desai, however, did not accept his resignation.
Madhavrao Scindia became the Railway Minister of State with independent charge during the Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as the Prime Minister. Around 1987-88, the erstwhile Bangalore-Ernakulam Island Express had plunged into a backwater Ashtamudi Lake, The casualty figures were feared to be very high. One news agency had put it at 350. Scindia was shocked and he lost no time in submitting his resignation to the Prime Minister. Rajiv Gandhi had rejected it (The actual number of death was however much less—a little over 100).
The most horrendous accident in the history of Indian Railways took place sometime in 1995 at the Ferozabad station in Uttar Pradesh. An express train named Kalindi Express (now plying between Kanpur and Bhiwani in Haryana) was standing at the Ferozabad station waiting for signal or for some other reason. It was to proceed towards Tundla Junction for New Delhi. Though the signal was red beyond, the cabin man gave clearance to the Puri-New Delhi Purushottam Express, which runs non-stop between Kanpur and New Delhi and generally keeps a speed of 100 to 110 kilometres an hour. This train at high speed hit the stationary Kalindi Express from behind at the dead of night. Both trains had derailed and worse still, the impact had made one or more coaches to touch an electric conductor of the electrified section. At the end of the day, it was estimated that 310 people had died. Many could not be identified and they were cremated on a single large pyre.
The minister then in office, CK Jaffer Shariff, did not resign. He was, nevertheless, a most successful and efficient Railway Minister otherwise. Mamata was the Railway Minister of the NDA government in 1999-2000. She was involved in West Bengal politics then too, but not to the extent she is now. She had resigned from the government within two years for political reasons, not because of reponsibility for any accident.
By Arabinda Ghose