Bangladesh has big dreams when it comes to trains, but right now, we are failing to instill confidence
Two train disasters in rapid succession, one in Brahmanbaria and one in Sirajganj, bring a sad truth to light: Our railway authorities are very bad at their job.
Either they really don’t have the resources or the know-how to prevent these tragedies, as many are claiming, or they just don’t care. Both possibilities are terrifying, and the truth is probably a combination of these factors.
The fact is we are out of our depth when it comes to big, complex machinery, even after all these years. We are like a drunk driver behind the wheel, and the country is saying a prayer, rolling the die, and hoping nobody gets killed. We talk big about putting into place an ultra-modern rail network connecting Bangladesh and perhaps more countries, but somewhere deep in our gut we realize that all of that is just talk.
How can we even begin to get truly ambitious when we are failing time and again to ensure even the most basic safety? How can we talk about building infrastructure of the future when we are failing so stupendously to even meet the standards of the present? And how can we hope to operate those shiny new futuristic machines -- the forthcoming Metro Rail comes to mind -- when it is so clear that the knowledge and training is simply not there?
It’s not that money isn’t being spent on improving these railways. Close to Tk55,000 crore was allocated to the Ministry of Railways to improve what we have. And yet, by BR’s own admissions, there is a massive staff shortage. Out of over 40,000 positions, only about 26,000 are filled. That means there is a very serious shortage in manpower. At the same time, plenty of people are desperate for employment.
So where is all that money going?
BR admits that having adequate personnel on staff was never given priority. Shockingly, then, one person has been doing the job of two or three, and sometimes, people are pulling double or triple shifts. Many work tired, and their attention drifts.
In a situation like that, if someone falls asleep on the job, while you can’t let them off the hook, you also have to pay attention to other factors that caused the person to falter.
The workers mess up, yes, but when poorly educated people are made to work in dehumanizing conditions, an accident is just a matter of time. It is educated (allegedly) bosses who should know better, and those are the folks we really need to hold to account.
An investigation into the Sirajganj accident suggests that that problem in this case was not someone’s indolence or incompetence, but the rail tracks themselves. If the money allocated isn’t being spent on adequate manpower, and it clearly also isn’t being spent on updating and replacing hazardous parts of the infrastructure, then it is safe to assume that something quite dirty is going on.
These two disasters have shaken the people’s confidence, and they are like a rude, cold, reality check at a time when our development-related rhetoric is at peak optimism. Middle-income this, digital that. The Metro Rail in Dhaka will be ready in no time, we are told.
It’s hard to feel optimistic, to be honest.
A house without a foundation doesn’t stand strong. Something rotten, no doubt, is taking place at the heart of all this development, so it is, perhaps, time for our ministers to take a step back, put their egos aside, and go back to the basics.
Fix the little things. For once in your life, try to prioritize on safety.
If a system is outdated, or if the equipment in place just no longer cuts it, then it is time to do a complete overhaul. The money seems to be there, after all. Furthermore, make sure there are enough people on the job, and make sure they are all trained, and make sure they are working hours that make sense.
Some medicine bottles advise the user to not operate heavy machinery under its influence. After all, if you’re not 100% up to the task, you should stay away from said task, because people could get hurt.
Well, people did get hurt. Lives have been lost, and they will never return. The authorities in Bangladesh have never been particularly big on common sense, but maybe it is time to start -- on a national level -- paying attention to the warning on the medicine bottle.
Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.