India’s Deadly Train Crash Raises Safety Concerns
Amid a financing push for modern infrastructure, existing problems may go overlooked.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: India’s deadly train crash suggests overlooked problems amid an infrastructure push, Bangladesh signs a fertilizer deal with Russia, and the Taliban’s poppy ban leads to a major slash in production.
Train Crash Suggests Overlooked Issues
The death toll from last Friday’s train crash in the state of Odisha in eastern India has now reached nearly 300, with hundreds more injured. Indian officials say that an electronic signaling error likely caused the tragic accident—one of the deadliest transportation disasters in India’s history.
However, the train crash is also notable because India’s rail safety has actually improved by a few measures in recent years. The number of serious train accidents each year fell from more than 300 two decades ago to 22 in fiscal year 2020. Train derailments have also declined significantly since the 1980s. But India still experiences deadly accidents, while funding for train safety and infrastructure maintenance has decreased.
With India’s government accelerating an industrial policy push focused on modern infrastructure and intended to attract foreign investment, lingering safety issues—many rooted in old and poorly performing infrastructure—risk being overlooked. With so much focus on creating new infrastructure, existing infrastructure may be neglected.
India suffered 2,017 train accidents between 2017 and 2021, according to the country’s Comptroller and Auditor General. Nearly 70 percent of those accidents were caused by old signaling equipment, poor infrastructure, track defects, or human error. The report found that insufficient funding or government officials’ unwillingness to provide funding to repair tracks contributed to these accidents.
India lavished nearly $30 billion on its railway system during fiscal year 2022 (which ended on March 31), a 15 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. This tracks with a larger state effort to expand infrastructure financing. Since India’s government acknowledged a $1.5 trillion infrastructure deficit in 2016, public spending has ramped up. But there is reason to fear that much of this funding focuses on flashy projects—not infrastructure maintenance.
India’s rail financing push may be about improving basic services, but it’s also about attracting more foreign investment—a longtime economic priority of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Modi’s “Make in India” initiative aims to bring top foreign companies to the country, strengthening its manufacturing sector through co-production arrangements with local firms. The strategy has worked to some extent: Major global companies are coming to India, even if not on a grand scale.
Unsurprisingly, India is also crafting a new business-friendly industrial policy. Although it’s still in draft form, recent media reports suggest it will include hastening Indian companies’ access to finance to spur industrial growth, improving the ease of doing business by reducing red tape and encouraging investments in new technology.
These new plans complement the Indian government’s efforts to scale up development of high-speed, long-distance train routes. These steps make sense for India, the world’s fifth-largest economy. But the emphasis on certain modernization measures may mean that other serious problems that remain with the country’s rail infrastructure (such as signaling issues, in the case of last week’s crash) risk being overlooked. Last week’s disaster was a wake-up call about the tragic costs of complacency.
New Delhi has strong incentives to redirect more funding and create policy space for train safety. To start, India is less than a year away from national elections. Announcing a new initiative to increase funding for infrastructure repairs and safety measures would be politically wise for the Modi government. After all, most rail riders in India can’t afford the expensive new train routes often touted by New Delhi.
Furthermore, India is leveraging its rail network to pursue its foreign-policy goals. It aims to use its expanding and modernizing transport network to court foreign investment. A proposal for a transnational connectivity corridor linking the Middle East to India, recently discussed during a meeting in Saudi Arabia, would draw on India’s capacity for rail infrastructure development. Continued train accidents could be a red flag for potential partners.
Last week, Indian officials received a painful reminder that clear dangers remain in the country’s rail infrastructure. They can’t afford to take their eye off the ball.
What We’re Following
Bangladesh inks fertilizer deal with Russia. Russia’s war in Ukraine has poisoned its relations with much of the West, but it can still find friends elsewhere—especially in South Asia. Russia has a long-standing partnership with India and a growing commercial relationship with Pakistan, as well as investment interests in Nepal and Bangladesh.
Last week, Moscow and Dhaka announced an agriculture deal, with Bangladesh set to import 180,000 tons of Russian fertilizer during the current fiscal year. The arrangement won’t please the United States, which last year successfully pressured Bangladesh to refuse to let a Russian ship carrying parts for a nuclear power plant dock in its port.
The fertilizer deal reflects Dhaka’s desire to maintain its relations with Washington and Moscow. But it also plays out against expanding great-power competition across South Asia. For countries like Bangladesh that are formally nonaligned, balancing ties remains a challenge.
Preparations for Modi’s U.S. state visit. The United States and India are already laying the groundwork for Modi’s state visit to Washington on June 22. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in New Delhi this week to meet his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh. And Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra visited Washington to participate in a strategic trade dialogue mainly focused on technology cooperation.
U.S. and Indian officials have said privately that the key areas for discussion during Modi’s visit to the White House will include defense cooperation, tech collaborations, clean energy, the challenge presented by China, and Russia’s war in Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden and Modi are also expected to announce a deal for General Electric to produce jet engines for Indian military aircraft.
Taliban slash poppy production. In April 2022, Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada announced a ban on opium poppy production, long a top source of income in Afghanistan. More than a year later, the ban appears to be remarkably successful. This week, a BBC investigation highlighted how Taliban members have razed poppy fields across the country and faced little resistance, including in top-producing provinces.
The United States spent billions of dollars on attempts to curb poppy production before its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. It failed largely because it didn’t create alternative livelihood programs for poppy farmers. The Taliban have succeeded by sending armed personnel to force farmers to comply with the ban—but they also have not established alternate forms of income.
According to the BBC report, poppy farmers are being asked to harvest wheat—which is not as profitable. Some Afghans may eventually have little choice but to return to poppy farming—and risk the ire of the Taliban.
Under the Radar
Last Saturday, Iran’s naval commander, Shahram Irani, made a striking announcement. Iran plans to establish a new naval alliance with Bahrain, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—as well as India and Pakistan. Irani reportedly said that these countries have recognized that cooperation is the best path to greater security.
In reality, the idea of an alliance among these countries beggars belief. Iran and Saudi Arabia inked a rapprochement deal in March, but moving from bitter rivals to allies so quickly seems ambitious. India doesn’t participate in global alliances—and certainly not with Pakistan. India also has little incentive to join a new Middle East security pact with Iran at a moment when it is stepping up efforts to strengthen cooperation with the United States and Israel in the region.
None of the countries purportedly involved in this arrangement have offered any public response. It’s likely that this was not a case of an official policy announcement, but rather an Iranian official simply sharing an opinion about what he would like to see play out.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- Russians Are Unraveling Before Our Eyes by Alexey Kovalev
- Stop Worrying About Chinese Hegemony in Asia by Stephen M. Walt
- The Bomb Was Horrifying. The Alternatives Would Have Been Worse. by Evan Thomas
In Dawn, medical researcher Navaira Ali Bangash argues that Pakistan can bring more attention to malnutrition risks by better emphasizing the financial costs of the problem. “One way to raise awareness of the consequences of malnutrition, including iron deficiency, is to highlight the economic losses incurred,” she explains.
Economists Harsh Vardhan and Rajeswari Sengupta warn in MoneyControl that while Indian banks have performed well during the current fiscal year, next year could be worse. “The road ahead seems bumpier with credit growth showing signs of a slowdown, and bank margins peaking and almost certain to decline,” they write.
A Dhaka Tribune editorial laments the lack of proper government attention to recurrent industrial fires in Bangladesh—a problem it argues is damaging the country’s global image and could affect foreign investment. “There should be no doubt that fire hazard has transformed Bangladesh into a death trap that is worsening year by year,” it asserts.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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