The Social Justice bench of the Supreme Court asked the Indian Railways on August 7 as to why it can’t keep the promise it had made while enacting a law in 1986 to do away with all the unmanned level crossings in the country. The apex court has been posing the same question since 2007, when it had sarcastically remarked, “you (Indian Railways) take the credit for achieving Rs 20,000-crore profit and at the same time, claim that you don’t have the funds to remove all unmanned level crossings.” The Supreme Court has been dealing with a number of public interest litigations on unmanned level crossings for about eight years now. Nonetheless, the problem of unmanned level crossings and associated accidents and deaths refuses to go away.
As per the Motor Vehicles Act and the Railways Act, it is the duty of the driver to take certain precautions at unguarded rail crossings. In fact, as per the Railways Act, negligent driving of vehicles at an unmanned level crossing is a punishable offence entailing imprisonment of up to one year. So, any accident at level crossings does not make the Railways culpable. There is no legal accountability for the Railways or the highways department for accidents that take place at level crossings. Level crossing accidents alone account for about 400 deaths every year — 40 per cent and 66 per cent of the total accidents and total deaths respectively.
There are about 11,500 unmanned level crossings out of a total of 30,348 in the country. To convert all the unmanned level crossings into manned level crossings, the Railways will have to spend Rs 20,000 crore. That would free it from moral culpability but may not eliminate accidents completely as it is not uncommon for people to cross railway tracks even when the gates are closed. The truck-train collision at a manned level crossing in Andra Pradesh early on Monday is another testimony to the fact that collisions at manned level crossings even when the gates remain closed are not uncommon.
Due to this very same reason, in 2012, the High Level Safety Review Committee, headed by Anil Kakodkar, recommended the elimination of all level crossings within five years at a cost of Rs 50,000 crore with ROBs/RUBs. According to the committee, it is worthwhile to do so since expenditure on the same would be recovered within seven or eight years thanks to the consequent improved train operations and savings. The recommendation of the committee is a holistic and comprehensive solution for level crossings accidents and to improve the efficiency of the Railways. What has stopped the Railways from implementing the recommendation of the Anil Kakodkar Committee? What makes it earn the wrath of the Supreme Court time and again? Given the current financial situation and the imminent implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission, the Railways will not be in a position to take up this task.
Moreover, state governments have to bear 50 per cent of the expenditure of constructing ROBs if the Traffic Vehicle Unit (number of vehicles passing through a level crossing multiplied by the number of trains passing through it in a day) exceeds one lakh and bear the entire cost of ROBs or RUBs if the TUV is less than one lakh. Most of the high traffic density level crossings are already provided with ROBs. The remaining are not remunerative enough to invite private players to Design, Finance, Build, Operate and Transfer ROBs or RUBs. Thus, the replacement of level crossings with ROBs or RUBs is to be done with government finances. Then, the moot question is how to mobilise resources for this unenviable task in the shortest possible time?
Ten per cent of the total tax revenues of the Union government comes from oil alone. However, the Union government has to share its tax revenues as per the prescription of the Finance Commission. The 14th Finance Commission, meant for the period 2015-2020, has increased the states’ share in central taxes from 32 per cent to 42 per cent of the total divisible pool of central tax revenues. In addition, state governments also gain substantially from the sales tax imposed on crude oil products. As 70 per cent of the diesel and 99.6 per cent of the petrol are consumed by the transport sector, the major revenue of crude oil taxes comes from the users of this sector. Ideally, the revenues that accrue from taxes on transport fuel have to be used to mitigate environmental damage and air pollution that arise from transportation, improve the safety of all modes of transport, enhance licencing and training system, develop and maintain inter-city and intra-city public transport facilities and on other similar development works.
But, tax revenues from crude oil have been used for other purposes. The Union government is eyeing crude oil tax revenues to reduce its fiscal deficit to 4.1 per cent as aimed in its 2015-16 budget. Most of the state governments may not be willing to spend the revenues arising from transport fuel taxes on transport safety projects as their finances are in a bad shape. Moreover, they want to splurge on populist schemes. Then, what is the solution? An uncompromising law or an executive order (unlike the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act 2003, which allowed deviation from the very aim of bringing fiscal deficit down to 3 per cent of the GDP) is required to ensure that the Union government and state governments use transport fuel taxes for transport related development judiciously with priority for safety projects.
In 1995, when the secretary of the Surface Transport Ministry highlighted the need for taking comprehensive measures to curb road accidents in the country, the then Minister of Surface Transport wondered whether such a move would fetch him and his party votes in the ensuing elections. The Minister died in a car accident five years later.
The administrative measures must be aimed at the larger welfare of the people. It is a great opportunity for the Union government and the state governments to work for the elimination of level crossings across the country on a war-footing by adopting fiscal discipline. At present, there is no accountability either for the Railways or the state governments as far as unmanned railway level crossings are concerned. It is possible to eliminate such dangerous level crossings in a time-bound manner only through a legislation that forces the Railways and the respective state governments to act. If this opportunity is missed, we could expect another Supreme Court grilling for the Railways even in 2026.
The author is a Doctorate in Public Systems, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad