Source: The Hitavada      Date: 28 Apr 2018 10:11:20

THE death of 13 schoolchildren at an unmanned level crossing (UMLC) in Uttar Pradesh’s Kushinagar is a glaring example of human negligence, lack of proper protection mechanism and undermining of safety measures. Deceased children’s families would keep grappling with this tragedy inflicted on them due to negligence of the school van driver and also failure of the Railway administration in putting in place foolproof checks at railway crossings. Those who were lucky to survive would live with a lifetime scar and horrific memories. Unfortunately, accidents at UMLCs is a regular happening in several States because of negligence and subversion of safety. The distressing thing is many of those accidents involved schoolchildren, resulting in loss of tender lives.

Section 161 of Indian Railway Act says, “If any person driving or leading a vehicle is negligent in crossing an unmanned level crossing, he shall be punishable with imprisonment’. Despite this Act and many such Acts, people are negligent towards safe practices and most often than not are let off even after violating the rules. Going by the accounts given by Railways, many precious lives have been lost at UMLCs. In 2016-17 about 30 lives were lost and the count keeps changing year after year.

Railway Board Chairman Mr. Ashwani Lohani was right when he said that any action taken by the national carrier to prevent accidents at UMLC would not be foolproof and people would have to look for their safety themselves while crossing the railway tracks. Ensuring one’s own safety does not have any alternative even if security measures are in place at railway crossings. The vast expanse of Indian Railways makes it impossible to keep check at every point where tracks cross with roads. It becomes all the more difficult at unmanned level crossings, some of which are in rural areas. Raising awareness among the masses and educating people about the perils of negligence while crossing railway tracks is the only option at the disposal of railways administration. For, imposition of heavy fines, too, has not acted as a deterrent for the habitual wrongdoers. Sadly, these people do not realise that their little transgression can turn into a horrible tragedy like what happened at Kushinagar.

In the case of Kushinagar, a ‘Gate Mitra’ (railway volunteer) was posted to alert users about approaching trains and prevent accidents. Yet, the van driver, in haste, overlooked the warning by the ‘Gate Mitra’ and tried to speed across even when the onlookers drew his attention to the approaching train. While the onus lies on the van driver for this ghastly mishap, the school management also cannot escape the blame. It is the responsibility and duty of the school management while selecting a driver, who is committed to the safety of the children he is ferrying. But the schools mostly ignore this basic issue. Many school buses are often overloaded with students undermining their safety. All this will have to be checked and the school managements will have to take the initiative along with parents before it is too late.

The Indian Railways is now planning to eliminate all the unmanned level crossings in the country by March 31, 2020. All these unmanned level crossings will either be converted into manned crossings or the railways will undertake construction of over or under bridges to bypass such crossings. The task has to be undertaken at warfooting since the number of UMLCs (5,792 at present) is still high.

Incidents like Kushinagar should serve as a wake-up call, both for the civic as well as railways administrations to put in place measures and save precious human lives. The Government has already announced a capital expenditure of Rs. 1.48 lakh crore to bring back the national carrier on safety track. The plan also incorporates safety mechanisms, including upgradation of signals. UMLCs, too, require an urgent attention in the plan to ensure passenger as well as road users’ safety.