Danger, Every Which Way You Move

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Until relatively recently, if you fell off an overcrowded train and were killed, Indian Railways would not record your death. The law was modified in 1994 to make the organization liable for these and other accidental fatalities--in explosions, shoot-outs, arson or similar acts of violence on the rails. But Indian Railways is still permitted to avoid responsibility for a variety of accidents on its gargantuan network. For instance, if a villager is run over by a speeding train as he crosses the railway line separating his home from his fields, he is designated a trespasser and promptly forgotten. Railway officials insist such incidents are relatively rare. But new evidence indicates that far more people die on the country's rail network each year than the bureaucrats let on. And no matter what the numbers are, India has not shown much interest in transport safety. In the inevitable national debate following every major train disaster, such as last week's collision at Gaisal, neither officials nor safety experts focus on ending the annual slaughter. And for good reason: hardly anyone is aware of it. According to Indian Railways, 363 people were killed in 381 train accidents during 1996-97. The number of accidents recorded by the railways has remained more or less constant in recent years, allowing officials to claim a consistent safety record. But the less-publicized National Crime Record Bureau's railway accident figures for 1996, the latest year available, tell a different story: as many as 14,975 people were killed on the rail network that year. A majority of them, presumably, were trespassers. Says Dinesh Mohan, a transport expert at the Indian Institute of Technology: The attempt is not to examine how the system is at fault, and then correct it, but only to fix individual blame. So if one of its employees is not directly responsible for the accident, Indian Railways is absolved of doing anything to prevent death on the tracks. The tracks are hardly the most dangerous place for Indian travelers. There were 69,800 deaths on India's roads in 1996, in addition to 338 air crash victims and 959 deaths in boat tragedies. The high number of plane deaths that year can be traced to a collision between two passenger jets near Delhi--the result, partly, of an antiquated air-traffic control system that has since been modernized. But the spiral of road deaths remains unchecked. T.K. Malhotra, president of the Automobile Association of Upper India, says India accounts for just 0.5% of the world's vehicles but 6.5% of all road accidents. As Indians rush to buy cars--more than 500 are added to Delhi's roads every day--little is being done to reduce road fatalities. There is no national highway safety administration, the traffic police and road transport authorities are riddled with corruption, roads and highways are badly planned and constructed, and hardly anyone gets convicted for drunk driving, a major cause of accidents. For now, traffic authorities may have only one way to reduce the number of road deaths: follow the example of Indian Railways and disregard accidents involving pedestrians, designating them simply as trespassers.