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Analysis

Overworked tracks are what make train travel unsafe

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railway track

On January 21, 2017, nine coaches and the engine of the 18448 Hirakhand (Jagdalpur-Bhubaneswar) Express derailed near Kuneru in Vizianagram district, Andhra Pradesh, killing 39 passengers and injuring 60, according to this report.

On December 28, 2016, 15 coaches of the 12987 Sealdah-Ajmer Express derailed near Rura, 70 km from Kanpur, on the Kanpur-Tundla rail stretch. Two passengers died and 65 sustained injuries, according to this report.

On November 20, 2016, 14 coaches of the 19321 Indore-Patna Express derailed near Pukhrayan, 60 km from Kanpur, in the Jhansi rail division. The mishap led to the death of 149 passengers, 182 were injured, according to this report.

Each of these derailments over the last four months occurred on over-utilised sections of the Indian Railways. These stretches were used to run trains beyond their line capacity, according to the following map.

map1

Source: Indian Railways, Lifeline of the nation; Click here for the high-resolution image.

As much as 40% of Indian Railways’ 1,219 line sections are utilised beyond 100%, according to Indian Railways, Lifeline of the Nation, a February 2015 white paper. Technically, a section using more than 90% of its capacity is considered saturated.

Source: Indian Railways, Lifeline of the nation

The congestion rate is even higher: It is 65% on 247 high density line sections of the Indian Railways network. “The optimal utilisation should be about 80%,” said Mukut Mithi, member of the Standing Committee on Railways and a Rajya Sabha member.

Source: Indian Railways, Lifeline of the nation

Track failures and subsequent derailments are caused by twin factors–excessive traffic and underinvestment in rail infrastructure–an IndiaSpend analysis of available data shows. Consider this: There has been a 56% increase in the daily tally of passenger trains over 15 years–from 8,520 in 2000-01 to 13,313 in 2015-16. The number of freight trains increased by 59% in the same period. But the running track length for all these trains increased by only 12% in 15 years–from 81,865 km to 92,081 km.

If you consider the period from 1950 to 2016, the underinvestment in rail infrastructure appears all the more acute. Against 23% railways’ route kilometre expansion, passenger and freight traffic increased 1,344% and 1,642% respectively, the Standing Committee on Railways concluded in a December 2016 report on Safety and Security in Railways.

Fatigue of railway tracks”, not explosives, is also the reason given by Gopal Gupta, director general, railways, Uttar Pradesh Police, to explain the derailment of 14 coaches of the Indore-Patna Express near Kanpur. This had contradicted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sabotage claim.

Gangetic plain rail network: The most risk prone

Most of India’s high-traffic rail routes lie in the Gangetic plains, according to ‘Some insights on the recent spate of accidents in Indian Railways’, a 2012 Physica A journal paper on traffic flow along India’s express train routes. Of the 11 major accidents due to derailment or collision in 2010, eight occurred in this region, according to the paper.

The Delhi-Tundla-Kanpur segment has been identified as India’s most risk-prone express train trunk route. Of the three recent mishaps cited above, one occurred on this segment.

Rail traffic, especially in the Gangetic plains, is so excessive that “if all trains were to travel in accordance with their [Indian Railways] schedule, then the present infrastructure would not be able to handle the resultant traffic-flow”, the paper added.

Indian Railways authorities manage this situation “by making trains wait at signals”, explained the paper. This practice results in “frequent delays” and also “increases the possibility of collisions in the event of human errors such as failure of the driver to react to signals”.

Budget bonanzas add to the congestion every year

The congestion on India’s tracks grows every year with the announcement of new trains and no parallel promise of track expansion. Every new train—“typically announced during the rail budget in response to demands of the people”, said Mithi—accentuates congestion on the Indian Railways network.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley this year, for instance, announced new dedicated trains to pilgrimage and tourist centres.

Stop such practice of introduction of new trains without commensurate inputs to the infrastructure, reads the February 2012 report of the Ministry of Railways-appointed High Level Safety Review Committee, a committee appointed under the chairmanship of Anil Kakodkar to review the safety of the Indian Railways and recommend improvements.

But no one heeds this counsel. The result is that over the last 15 years, passenger kilometres, a representation of both the number of passengers and the distance they travelled, increased by 150%. And net tonne kilometres, a measure of freight hauled and the distance it has been transported, doubled.

Congestion eats into track maintenance time

Congestion reduces the headway—the time-interval between two consecutive trains running on the same route—thus increasing the chances of collisions on very busy stretches. This also eats into the time available for maintenance.

“We found a correlation between the low headway during the busiest time of the day and collision accidents,” said Niloy Ganguly, co-author of the Physica A paper and professor, department of computer science & engineering, at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.

Take the example of the overbusy Delhi-Kanpur segment. Between midnight and 7 am, the busiest rail traffic hours, railway staff got just 13 minutes to check the tracks, according to the Physica A paper. The rest of the day, the headway would increase to an average of 19 minutes.

It is not as though there has been no technology upgrade in the field of maintenance. Indian Railways plies track-recording cars and uses portable oscillation monitoring systems to detect defects in track geometry, which includes parameters such as track gauge, alignment, elevation, curvature and surface, said Anil Kumar Saxena, additional director general, public relations, Railway Board. To test rails and welds, Indian Railways uses the ultrasonic flaw detection testing method. Since 2016, it has been testing the ultrasonic broken rail detection system used by the South African Railway on tracks maintained by Northern Railway and North Central Railway.

To reduce weld failures compromising safety–the most likely reason for the May 4, 2014, Diva-Sawantwadi train derailment near Nidi village, Maharashtra, on the Konkan Railways, that killed 22 and injured over 150–Indian Railways has adopted improved welding methods. It has also been switching over to long rail panels on 83% of the track to minimise the need for welding.

“Indian Railways has introduced better technology of late, which speeds up work,” agreed Kulmeet Singh Chhabra, director, Projects, ISC Projects, a railways construction and maintenance company with more than 40 years of experience. “But what use is even good technology when there is insufficient time to apply it?”

Maintenance typically happens by re-jigging schedules. “To work around time shortages, we would close lines to traffic when goods trains were scheduled to pass,” recalled Sainath Naidu, former commissioner of railway safety, Bengaluru, and former chief engineer (co-ordination), South Western Railway, Indian Railways.

Why the mishaps: Slow track expansion and renewal and coach upgrades

New tracks are vital for reducing traffic bottlenecks. Two key projects launched in 2005 are the 1504 km-long western dedicated freight corridor (DFC) and the 1318 km-long eastern DFC, roughly corresponding to the overworked Mumbai-Delhi and Howrah-Delhi lines where the utilisation varies between 115% and 150%.

When commissioned, the new freight corridors will absorb 70% of the existing freight traffic on those routes, thus significantly freeing up line capacity. They will also boost the speed of freight trains from 25 kmph–where it has stood over the last three decades–to 70 kmph.

But it is unlikely that the corridors will be finished by 2019 as targeted, and here is why: The Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India, the special-purpose body created to implement the projects, is expecting to fully award the civil and system contracts for the Eastern DFC only by June this year and all but one stretch awarded by the former United Progressive Alliance government are less than 50% complete, according to this update.

There is also a lag in addressing “defects in the track or rolling stock”, a cause of derailment–the most common type of rail accident–according to the Standing Committee’s December 2016 report.

In July 2014, around the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, 5,300 km of track length was due for renewal, according to Indian Railways, Lifeline of the nation, a February 2015 white paper. Additionally, 4,500 km of track length comes up for renewal every year.

But track renewal targets for the last three years have been roughly half of what is needed–2,200 km, 2,500 km and 2,668 km in 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively. The first two were achieved. This shortfall will result in “disproportionately high maintenance effort”, to quote the 2015 white paper, and possibly curtailed speeds.

Source: Indian Railways, Lifeline of the nation

“Track renewal is an ongoing process, stretches are renewed when their age and condition demand it,” said the Railways Board’s Saxena. “When stretches are not renewed in time due to the scarcity of funds or material, speed restrictions are imposed to ensure safe running.”

Old coaches made by the Integral Coach Factory, the country’s oldest coach-maker, also impose speed restrictions–a top speed of roughly 100 km per hour (kmph). Coaches from Alstom-Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) of Germany, on the other hand, are designed for speeds upwards of 130 kmph with anti-climbing features to curtail fatalities in the eventuality of an accident.

So far, LHB coaches have been inducted only in premier services such as the Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto. A policy decision to use only LHB coaches from 2018-19 will ensure other trains get them too. But the full replacement of the entire existing fleet will take longer, possibly up to 2040, this November 2016 India Today report suggested.

Level crossing accidents–the second most common type of mishaps, as Mithi noted–will continue to pose a risk till they are fully phased out, at least on the broad gauge, according to a 2016-17 railways budget decision. This year, 15% of the 9,340 level crossings have been targeted for elimination.

It means little that India has fewer accidents per million train km than Germany

In this year’s budget, following three disastrous rail accidents, safety attracted a hefty allocation. It went towards the creation of a Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (national rail safety fund) with a five-year corpus of Rs 100,000 crore.

The government has conceded that investments in safety have been insufficient, but it has also claimed that India’s accidents per million train kilometres, a safety index, compares favourably with Europe’s. In India, this index has more or less declined over the last decade, reducing from 0.23 in 2006-07 to 0.10 in 2015-16. This figure is lower than that of France or Germany (both 0.17).

However, this does not mean that Indian Railways is as safe as European railway networks because their trains run at speeds upwards of 250 km per hour, said experts.

“Accidents per million train kilometres depends on the number of trains, which is huge in India vis-à-vis developed nations. It also depends on speed, another measure of infrastructure usage, prevailing law and order conditions, and temperature variation,” said Sukesh Kumar Sharma, a Hyderabad-based project management expert formerly with the Indian Railways.

“A direct comparison between the railway systems of India and developed nations is not possible. Our average speed is of 60-70 km per hour–only few Indian trains reach a top speed of 130 kmph that is less than half the 300-kmph top speed of trains in developed nations. India’s low index paints a misleadingly rosy picture,” Sharma added.

(Bahri is a freelance writer and editor based in Mount Abu, Rajasthan.)

Analysis

BJP needs to rein in the Hindutva hotheads

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Narendra Modi

The rise in the growth rate to the moderately satisfactory 6.3 per cent from the depressingly low 5.7 per cent is good news for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at a time when the Prime Minister reminded the audience at a function organised by a media house about former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s observation about the negativism which generally marked newspapers and magazines.

Narendra Modi’s case for a more positive outlook in the media and the country will seem more credible in the context of the latest growth figures if only because they highlight the mistake of those like former Finance Minister Yashwant Singh of the BJP, who have been lamenting (perhaps with a touch of schadenfreude) about the economy’s free fall.

As Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has said, the country’s emergence from the recent slump means that it has got over the twin blows of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which were expected by Modi’s critics to spell his doom.

The turn for the better in the economy has come at the right time for the BJP when its frenetic campaigning in Gujarat with Modi addressing 30 meetings in a fortnight and with as many as 40 cabinet ministers camping in the state, pointed to a measure of uneasiness in the party about its prospects in what is widely regarded as its bailiwick.

However, considering that the BJP’s success in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh is almost a foregone conclusion, one can say that the rise in the growth rate will not make much of a difference to the outcome. All that it can do is to dampen some of the ardour of the ruling party’s opponents.

Even then, the point remains that the BJP will face its real challenge not in Gujarat or Himachal Pradesh this month, but in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh next year. It is in those elections, where the BJP will encounter the anti-incumbency factor, that it will become clear whether the rise in the growth rate has helped the party or is of little consequence.

The reason for the doubts is that it is not clear to what extent the unemployment problem will be mitigated by the climbing growth rate in these days of automation and artificial intelligence.

Equally uncertain is the quantum of the impact on the BJP’s hopes as a result of the prevailing tension and uncertainty caused by the crime rate — and especially the safety of women and even children.

The effect of the rampaging Hindutva hardliners declaring bounties on the heads of actors and directors is another unknown factor whose effect will be known only after the votes are counted.

Up till now the BJP has been sitting pretty because its “vikas” (development) plank still has many takers even if it hasn’t made a perceptible dent on the unemployment scene. In addition, Modi’s personal popularity remains high because of his oratorical skills and the impression he conveys about the seriousness of his intent to take the country forward.

In contrast, his opponents lack an agenda which can have an inspiring effect and are bereft of leaders capable of drawing enthusiastic crowds although Rahul Gandhi is showing signs of the old Nehruvian appeal.

The opposition depends therefore on, first, the economy continuing to be sluggish and, secondly, on the Hindutva hotheads creating a ruckus. But such an approach is obviously a negative one, as is also banking on the anti-incumbency factor to undermine the BJP-run state governments. There is little hope, therefore, for the opposition if it cannot adopt a positive attitude with a clear projection of the kind of India which it envisages.

For the BJP, on the other hand, it is a tug-of-war between vikas and the hotheads. As long as the economy shows signs of buoyancy, it can expect to be home and dry. It is of the utmost importance for it, therefore, to ensure that the recovery doesn’t flag and that the country regains its status as the fastest-growing economy in the world.

At the same time, the party cannot allow the loonies in its ranks, who include ministers, to run amok. It does not reflect well on a government when the apex court has to direct the states to check cow vigilantes or tell senior politicians in the ruling dispensation to keep their mouths shut on yet-to-be released films lest they influence the censor board.

As it is, the impression persists that the government is not too comfortable with the autonomy of established institutions as could be seen from the official directive to the University Grants Commission (UGC) to ensure that students and teachers did not miss Modi’s “life changing” speech on the occasion of Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s centenary celebrations and Swami Vivekananda’s 125th birth anniversary last September.

If the government does not want the UGC, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and other autonomous bodies to become “caged parrots”, as the Supreme Court once called the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), then it has to desist from enforcing regimentation and stopping the saffron extremists from targeting artistes and all those who are not with the BJP. Otherwise, growth rate alone will not prevent the erosion of its popularity.

By : Amulya Ganguli

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected] )

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Analysis

India in the global matrix: We must deepen bilateral relations with Japan and the US

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Kapil Sibal
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calls on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi (File Photo: IANS/PIB)

With the dismantling of trade barriers and the exponential increase of cross-border economic activity, the nature of the global economy has changed. This reality has necessitated nations to reorient the thrust of their foreign policy objectives.

The rise of an assertive China, the new Czar on the horizon, has to be reckoned with globally. In this context, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to India on October 24, 2017, assumes significance. A week before this visit, Tillerson had described the Indo–US strategic relationship as “bookends of stability on either side of the globe”. Shared values, commitment to the rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade are the four pillars of this evolving bilateral narrative.

China’s emerging status is also reflected in the first meeting of a quadrilateral dialogue on the sidelines of ASEAN summit in Manila on November 12, embracing India, Australia, US and Japan to protect global commerce by espousing a rule-based approach to the commons and freedom to navigate in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean across to Africa. This was an idea that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had earlier floated in 2007. Both US and Japan believe that the time has come to respond not just to Beijing’s assertive behaviour, but also to counteract its OBOR — One Belt One Road initiative.

It would, however, be naïve of India to think that the US will be willing to directly involve itself in the Asia Pacific region. The US, under Trump, would rather prefer New Delhi to counterbalance Beijing rather than involve itself directly in the region. The $309 billion US trade deficit with China in 2016 in the context of $648 US goods & services trade makes for economic interdependence, which might override other considerations. Besides, the US requires Chinese influence in containing North Korea along with other issues of global concern and significance wherein both the US and China need to collaborate. In the circumstances, it will be difficult for the US to involve itself in the Asia Pacific region in any substantial way. Yet, the increasing proximity between Pakistan and China in building the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) requires US to further build on its strategic partnership with India, expecting India to become a significant player in Afghanistan and a key partner in its outreach to the Asia Pacific region. At the same time, US troops in Afghanistan rely on Pakistan for logistical support, transit and Islamabad’s influence with the Taliban and its affiliated Haqqani network. On the other hand, during talks with President Xi Jinping on the fringes of the G20 Summit in Hamburg in July, 2017, Shinzo Abe expressed Japan’s intention to participate in China’s OBOR initiative. Japanese $270 billion bilateral trade volume with China is not insignificant apart from investments of 20,000 Japanese firms in China.

In the currents and crosscurrents of political imperatives and economic realities, India has to tread very carefully. The recent standoff at Doklam, our decision not to participate in China’s Belt and Road initiative, the lack of any perceptive movement in resolving our boundary dispute with China and its increasing proximity with Pakistan, apart from the fact that China, through investments, is making inroads in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and has the economic clout to benefit Nepal, are matters of great concern. At the same time, Chinese investments in India are on the rise. The Chinese are targeting key sectors of the economy including power, telecom, engineering, and infrastructure. Washington’s new South Asia policy has not gone unnoticed by the Chinese, who believe the US intends to turn New Delhi into a stronghold to counterbalance Beijing. The Chinese are not willing to swallow anything that undermines their interests.

New Delhi must, therefore, be careful in openly aligning itself in any quadrilateral partnership. It needs to continuously engage with China to resolve bilateral issues. Any attempt to openly align itself with any anti-China alliance will only exacerbate our relations which we can ill-afford, considering our skewed bilateral trade balance. Additionally, our economy is yet to achieve the robust rate of economic growth, which alone will give us the self-confidence to deal with issues that are likely to confront us in the future.

We need to deepen our bilateral relations with Japan as well as the US, and leverage that relationship consistent with our national interest. Our confluence of interest with the US can help ensure constructive initiatives in the Asia Pacific region and help us in deepening our relationship with Afghanistan. We must recognise that despite the warm ties between India and the US, no significant benefits have ensued in terms of our becoming a permanent member of the Security Council or the US pressurising Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used as a springboard for terrorist activities in India. The growing proximity of Russia and China, as well as Russia’s developing economic involvement in the area of energy and defence in Pakistan, is evidence that in foreign policy, it’s the confluence of interests in a given time frame that matter.

India, today, does not have the luxury to be part of any alliance but needs to leverage its relationships both with the democratic world and in and around our neighbourhood to protect our self-interest.

The author is a member of the Rajya Sabha, and a senior Indian National Congress leader. Views expressed are personal.

Courtesy: This Article is published in the DNA on 20th November 2017.

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Analysis

Demonetisation failed litmus test as most banned notes returned

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demonetisation death

(‘Note-Bandi: Demonetisation and India’s Elusive Chase for Black Money’ is an upcoming book from Oxford University Press dedicated to the “memory of Indian citizens who lost their lives due to demonetisation”). Excerpts from a chapter.

The litmus test for the success of any demonetisation is the amount of cash that does not return to the banking system. For long, economists and observers were intrigued by the refusal of the RBI to share data on SBNs (Specified Bank Notes) returned to banks after December 10, 2016.

Information on SBNs returned was important because any amount not returned to the banking system was supposed to be ‘black money’, which could be ‘extinguished’ by the RBI… Consequently, the RBI could pass over an equivalent amount to the government, which in turn could spend it for welfare purposes.

The government’s expectations were shared by the Attorney-General of India, Mukul Rohatgi, with the Supreme Court. According to Rohatgi, the government did not expect more than Rs 12 lakh crore to be returned to the banks, which implied that about Rs 3 lakh crore worth of ‘black money’ was to be extinguished and passed over to the government.

Image result for demonetisation disaster urjit patel

As demonetisation proceeded, these hopes stood belied. To begin with, (RBI Governor Urjit) Patel was forced to clarify on December 7, 2016, that “the withdrawal of legal tender characteristic status does not extinguish any of the RBI balance sheets … They are still the liability of the RBI”.

On December 8, Revenue Secretary Hasmukh Adhia told journalists that “the expectation is that the entire money which is in circulation has to come to the banking channel”. In other words, the pace at which SBNs were being returned to the banking system had convinced the government that there would be no currency left to extinguish. By December 10, Rs 12.44 lakh crore worth SBNs had already returned to the banking system.

Related image

The government staunchly refused to share any figure on SBNs returned after December 10. Instead, it attempted to obfuscate facts and confuse the public with convoluted stories of ‘double counting’. On December 15, (Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta) Das told the media that data on SBNs returned were being withheld because the RBI suspected ‘double counting’ of currency notes.

Das’ statement was soon shown to be wrong.

There were two ways in which returned SBNs could be counted. One, through the simple addition of the cash position of individual banks with respect to the SBNs returned. There could be double-counting here, as banks without currency chests may have deposited cash with banks that had currency chests.

Two, directly from the currency chests, in which case there was no scope for double-counting. (Deputy Governor of RBI Usha) Thorat, in an interview, pointed out that “there is no question of double counting… RBI only looks at the currency chest data”.

In an interview with the Economic Times, Rajnish Kumar, the Managing Director of the SBI, further clarified this in no uncertain terms: …currency chest position is the correct position, there cannot be any flaw in that … double counting can only happen if the individual banks and post offices are reporting the deposit position … but [in] currency chest reporting which is done every day and which is an automated process, the possibility of any discrepancy does not exist … If the Reserve Bank has given the number based on the currency chest position, then there should be no discrepancy. But if the data is given on the basis of daily reports of deposits being given by the bank, then there is a possibility of some double counting.

In its regular media briefings, the RBI was indeed providing SBN data from currency chests and not by adding the cash positions of individual banks. The RBI’s Deputy Governor R. Gandhi told the media on December 13, 2016, that “specified bank notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 returned to the RBI and currency chests amounted to Rs 12.44 lakh crore as on December 10, 2016 “.

Yet, the RBI was to state on January 5, 2017, that “figures [on SBN] would need to be reconciled with the physical cash balances to eliminate accounting errors/possible double counts”. The effort, clearly, was to hide.

It was only in August 2017 that the RBI, ultimately, released the final figures of the SBNs returned. According to the RBI’s Annual Report for 2016-17, out of the Rs 15.44 lakh crore worth of currency in circulation as on November 8, 2016, Rs 15.3 lakh crore had returned to the banking system as on June 30, 2017. In other words, 98.96 per cent of the SBNs was back in the banking system and only 1.04 per cent of the SBNs remained outside.

The verdict was finally out: As most critics predicted, demonetisation had failed to extinguish any amount of money that could be alleged as ‘black’.

By R. Ramakumar

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

(R. Ramakumar is Dean, Centre for Study of Developing Economies, School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He can be reached at [email protected])

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