It was sheer laxity on part of the local railway administration in executing the project for widening of rail foot-over-bridge at Elphinstone station sanctioned in 2016, which led to the death of 23 people in Mumbai.
There was no reason why a small project costing just about Rs 12 crore sanctioned in the 2016-17 budget could not be implemented in 18 months, that too when Suresh Prabhu as railway minister had delegated the powers to general managers to take up such projects.
After the accident, Prabhu issued a statement claiming that he during his tenure had sanctioned a wider foot-overbridge (FOB) at Elphinstone Road station in 2015. The tender was not issued on account of the railway administration’s careless attitude.
However, his comment also raised the disturbing question whether there was any oversight mechanism in place to ensure that officials implemented decisions in an accountable manner. With GMs empowered to implement projects up to Rs 25 crore, Prabhu’s comments also drew attention to criticism that he, who had been a senior cabinet minister till recently, had been unable to get the rail bureaucracy to function efficiently.
“The concerned GM was not even supposed to get approval of railway board of detailed estimates for this project,” said a railway official.
When projects announced in the budget for doubling and tripling of railway tracks worth thousands of crores which require multiple clearances like that of the Niti Aayog and Cabinet had been awarded, why did the GM fail to execute this project, the official asked.
Widening of rail FoB at Elphinstone station was announced in last year’s budget by Prabhu, but the transporter has failed to award the tender costing just Rs 11.86 even though almost 18 months have gone by since then. “Rail ministry can’t chase every small project. Local rail administration has to take up the responsibility of execution,” said another official, adding that railway bureaucracy is shying away from taking up responsibility and Elphinstone tragedy is a case in point.
The tragedy in Mumbai is yet another reflection of the fund crunch faced by railways and constraints of colonialera rail bureaucracy which is poor in implementation of projects and yet resists any move to revamp it.
Even railway officers admit in private that top rail bureaucracy has repeatedly failed to stand up to pressure from the political leadership. which results in announcements of new trains and projects on purely popular compulsions, ignoring commercial viability and knowing that the infrastructure was under severe stress.