Getting railway safety back on track after Odisha
There have been innumerable television debates following the train accident involving the 12841 Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express, the 12864 Sir M. Visvesvaraya Terminal Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express and a goods train at Bahanaga Bazar station in Balasore district, Odisha, on the evening of June 2. But the key question that many panellists have failed to address convincingly, barring the familiar platitudes, is about how the Indian Railways can work to ensure that such catastrophes are never repeated.
First, a recap of what happened. Broadly, the interlocking of signals and routes through a series of relays and logic gates, ensures that a train is guided by signals to a route amid a maze of railway tracks in a manner that would never cause it to encounter another train, ahead or in the rear. In this case, this interlocking was overridden by manual intervention. We also have two causes: in the first, it was most likely done by a signal maintainer who has access to the equipment hut or relay room, who may have been cutting corners to expedite his maintenance work so that the running train is not affected. Or, in the second instance, as the Indian Railways seems to believe, it is the handiwork of ‘a saboteur’ with criminal intention to cause an accident. The Odisha train accident is now a subject of double investigation; the first, the statutory probe by the Commissioner of Rail Safety, and the second by the Central Bureau of Investigation, which is an unprecedented move by the government. Whatever be the findings, it is not premature to examine the question that has been raised above.
In this specific case, the general public finds it quite bewildering that a callous and cavalier signal maintainer, or for that matter ‘a criminal’, can meddle with the system and cause havoc of this magnitude. The heart of the interlocking equipment is housed in a central relay room in the main station building and access to this room is similar to opening a bank locker; the station master and the maintainer have keys to a double lock. While tampering with equipment in this room is possible by the maintainer, in connivance or otherwise with the station master, the chances of a criminal acting this way are inconceivable. On the other hand, there are some pieces of remote equipment spread all over a railway station yard which are installed in huts and location boxes, access to which is possible only by the authorised maintainer. The possibilities of tampering are greater in such locations. Reportedly, in this case, it was the equipment in one such hut which was alleged to have been accessed and meddled with in this case. It is not out of place to mention that this system of protecting sensitive signalling equipment is not unique to India; something similar, if not less stringent, is prevalent even in advanced rail systems abroad.
How do you deal with a scenario in which the authorised maintainer himself (under pressure to clear a fault expeditiously or to execute in a quick manner regular maintenance so that the running of trains does not suffer) adopts shortcuts, thereby endangering the lives of thousands of passengers? Or, that there is a criminal out to cause mayhem? This is akin to a clever hacker accessing a computerised road traffic signalling system in a busy crossing and fiddling with the conflict resolution module, turning on all the lights in both directions to green and causing a massive crash of vehicles.
Strengthen access to systems
Stronger safeguards against such misadventures, whether by the custodian himself or otherwise, may be difficult to build but it is something that must be pursued with great resolve. The provision of a double lock system even for remote huts in railway stations will certainly cause great inconvenience to implement, increasing the chances of train delays but is it a great price to pay given the Odisha train accident? This is an age of mobile phones and IT applications and it should be possible to think of a system of multiple digital authorisations to access such equipment without the physical movement of staff other than the maintainers. These are the things the inquiry should look into, going beyond merely identifying the culprits. Work towards devising a safer system should actually begin in earnest without waiting for any inquiry reports.
I have come across some cases of the maintainer resorting to shortcuts, which came very close to creating an accident-like situation. If the inquiry into the Odisha train accident confirms that this was indeed a case of unsafe intrusion by a maintainer, it would be even more important to determine whether this was a one-off case in the zone or whether it was something detected in the normal course but not dealt with sternly. Even if this was done occasionally, the buck has to stop with the top management of the zone.
There is another issue — the larger question of the Indian Railways’ safety record and the way forward. Let us look at accident data. Till a decade ago, fatalities caused by railway accidents used to be in the range of 500-plus people every year; but in the last four years or so, the number is now less than 50. Although the Odisha accident has left its imprint on safety statistics, it is important to accept that the general reduction in the accident rate is a result of some positive actions such as the elimination of unmanned level crossings as well as improved track renewal and maintenance.
Funds are not an issue
Therein lies a lesson. It was William Shakespeare who said, “Strong reasons make strong actions.” Yes, the rail network in India is largely saturated, the number of train services has gone up exponentially, and there is a need to fill all vacancies in the safety categories. All this makes it even more imperative to focus more on upgradation of track and signalling.
The provision of Kavach, the indigenous comprehensive signalling system, could not have prevented this accident. But other aspects of safety do demand faster implementation of Kavach; this would not only enhance rail safety but also improve the sectional capacity to run more trains. While the government having its share of the limelight following the introduction of more Vande Bharat trains and creating a hype around railway station modernisation cannot be grudged, faster execution of track and signalling work is exclusive to this. There is no dearth of funds as the capex investment by the central government in the Indian Railways is at an extraordinary high. Therefore, the least one can ask for is to make the Indian Railways much safer than it is today.
Work towards devising a safer system in the Indian Railways should begin in earnest without waiting for any inquiry report.
What was the requirement for limits on UPI transactions?
As transactions breach record highs, banks have opted to impose daily limits. The idea is to sustain the smoother functioning of the payments interface as it continues to acquire wider popularity in our daily lives
The story so far:
As transactions facilitated by the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) breach record highs, banks have opted for daily limits. These are over and above the already imposed ceilings mandated by the facilitator, the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), in 2021. The idea is to sustain the smoother functioning of the payments interface as it continues to acquire popularity.
What is the conversation about daily limits?
At present, users can make up to 20 transactions or ₹1 lakh in a single day — either all at once or through the day. For certain specific categories of transactions such as the capital markets, collections (such as bills, among others), insurance and forward inward remittances, the limit is ₹2 lakh. In December 2021, the limit for the UPI-based ASBA (Application Supported by Blocked Amount) IPO and retail direct schemes was increased to ₹5 lakh for each transaction.
The conversation now revolves around banks and apps coming up with their own guidelines for transactions. For example, state-run lenders Punjab National Bank (PNB) and Bank of Baroda has set its transaction limit at a much lower ₹25,000. PNB’s daily limit is ₹50,000. As for apps, among others, Google Pay users breach the daily limit if they try to send money more than ten times in a single day across all UPI apps.
As the payments interface looks to expand its footprint (recall the boarding of non-resident accounts having international numbers into the ecosystem) and its growing utility in daily lives, limits would help maintain an essential security infrastructure and its seamless functioning. This is also important as the interface looks to expand its use-case, as also called for in the proposed pilot project for coin-vending machines with UPI as the facilitator.
What does the industry think?
Digital payments app PhonePe’s spokesperson told The Hindu, “The limits are set balancing out customer convenience and potential fraud/risk concerns. The NPCI has also increased the value limit in specific categories where the average transaction value is higher such as Capital Markets or Credit Card Bill payments.” As for the moves impacting the future growth, “All the ecosystem participants, the NPCI and the regulator regularly review the transaction and value limits on UPI and implement the requisite changes where the need exists”, the official said referring to the higher limits for IPOs, Broking, Mutual Funds, Loan repayment etc.
What are the most recent trends observed with respect to UPI?
In May this year, the total number of transactions facilitated using UPI increased to 9,415.19 million. The combined value of such transactions also increased at a largely similar ₹14.89 lakh crore. The segregation in terms of P2P (peer-to-peer) and P2M (peer-to-merchant) is particularly interesting. In terms of volume, whilst P2P accounted for about 43% at 4,045.48 million, in terms of value its share scaled up to ₹11.45 lakh crore.
In the P2P category, the majority of the transactions were in the below ₹500 bracket (54.2%) whilst in the P2M category, the share in the same amount bracket stood at 84.3%. This gives an indication of its lower-down utility. Important to note that considering the varied nature of merchants and business, the nature of transactions can be categorised in favour of one whilst it should be on the other side.
However, important to note in this context, until February in the financial year 2022-23, the total number of reported UPI frauds had also increased about 13% in comparison to the previous financial year to 95,402. However, this was alongside a decline in the fraud to sales ratio at 0.0015%.
Thus, to combat the growing incidences, there is the imperative need to have safeguard infrastructure in a growing ecosystem.
At present, users can make up to 20 transactions or ₹1 lakh in a single day — either all at once or through the day
As the payments interface looks to expand its footprint and its growing utility in daily lives, limits would help maintain an essential security infrastructure and its seamless functioning
Until February in the financial year 2022-23, the total number of reported UPI frauds had increased about 13% in comparison to the previous financial year to 95,402. However, this was alongside a decline in the fraud to sales ratio at 0.0015%.
National Exit Test to start from 2024, says Health Ministry
Ending months of speculation, the Union Health Ministry on Thursday announced that the National Exit Test (NExT) will be held from 2024. NExT will replace the final-year MBBS examination and the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test-Postgraduate (NEET-PG), acting as the test for registration for doctors and admission to medical postgraduate courses.
Sources said the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, was likely to conduct the exam, which will test clinical and practical learning of the students.
Meanwhile, the Ministry announced that 50 new medical colleges have been added to the national list, taking the number of undergraduate medical seats to over one lakh. It also noted that recognition (UG-level) of 38 medical colleges has been withheld, 102 have been issued showcause notice and 24 have appealed to the National Medical Commission (NMC) and six to the Ministry. It added that existing students will not suffer due to the regulatory process.
“This is a routine process that is conducted by the NMC which is the apex medical regulator to ensure that these teaching institutes have no deficiencies. The issues for which colleges are facing flak from the regulators include staff shortage, shortage of doctors, patients not being available to students, staff not marking attendance on biometric system, etc.,” said a senior official.
He added that these numbers are dynamic and depend on the appeals taken up over the next two months.
The issue came to light after one of the oldest government medical institutions in India — Stanley Medical College in Chennai — and a couple of others from Tamil Nadu lost their recognition. However, the decision was soon reversed.
U.S., U.K. forge ‘Atlantic Declaration’ to boost ties
The United States and Britain on Thursday announced a new strategic pact as their leaders rededicated the “special relationship” to counter Russia, China and economic instability.
In a White House summit, U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak discussed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the lightning-fast evolution of artificial intelligence.
But Mr. Sunak came away empty-handed on Britain’s ambitions for a post-Brexit free-trade agreement with Washington, settling instead to tack along with Mr. Biden’s plan to craft a new green economy through vast industrial subsidies. An “Atlantic Declaration” adopted by the leaders aims to boost industry ties on defense and renewable energy, in the face of growing competition from China.
“We face new challenges to international stability — from authoritarian states such as Russia and the People’s Republic of China; disruptive technologies; non-state actors; and transnational challenges like climate change,” the declaration read.
Both leaders concurred that the world economy was undergoing the biggest changes since the Industrial Revolution, in part driven by AI, which is bringing doomsday warnings.
How long-term stress impacts the intestine and your life
Chronic psychological strain and pressure can precipitate inflammation and dysmotility in the gut, details a recent study published in Cell journal;
important for future research and clinical practice, say doctors in India
The crossroads of mental health and gastroenterology got a lot more attention in May this year, with a study published in Cell journal, titled ‘The enteric nervous system relays psychological stress to intestinal inflammation’. “Mental health profoundly impacts inflammatory responses in the body. This is particularly apparent in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), in which psychological stress is associated with exacerbated disease flares,” it said, in summary.
“It’s an important study. What is excellent is that for the first time we have a much clearer understanding of the possible underlying mechanisms of inflammatory response and the whole cascade which ultimately precipitates the disorder. This is good not only for researchers but also for clinicians, because the pathways have been quite well explained,” says Sarath Gopalan, senior consultant paediatric gastroenterologist and hepatologist, Madhukar Rainbow Children’s Hospital, Delhi. In the future, he feels, with more research, drugs that block inflammatory cascades can be developed.
The study talks of stress pushing the adrenal gland to make glucocorticoids, a steroidal stress hormone. When stress is short-term, like before an exam, it may result in a loss of appetite and increased frequency of stools. When it’s chronic, or experienced long term, over a few weeks to months to years, like in a toxic job or marriage or through childhood with the pressure to perform, it can result in inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, an example being inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
With chronic stress, the body is constantly producing glucocorticoids. Two mechanisms may kick in, though the study does not describe whether both occur together or if there is a difference in the pace: “One is mediated by monocytes (white blood cells in the immune system that kill invaders) and TNF (tumour necrosis factor, a protein made by white blood cells), both mediators of inflammation through colony stimulating factor-1 (CSF-1, signalling pathways),” explains Gopalan. This results in physical changes to the intestine – damage to the intestinal mucous membrane due to the inflammation.
“The second is associated with neurotransmitter acetylcholine deficiency and dysmotility (abnormal speed of intestinal movement due to improper functioning of the muscles in the area). This is mediated through another inflammatory mediator: transforming growth factor (TGF) beta 2,” says Gopalan. This is the functional change in the gut.
IBD is quite different from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) that is also precipitated by stress, and seen a great deal in women. Unlike IBD though, IBS does not cause, and neither is it caused by an inflammatory response. “If I do an endoscopy, a person with IBD will have physical changes to the colon; it may present like a wounded intestine – there may be ulcers for instance. There are morphological or structural changes. However, in IBS (characterised by bloating, constipation, diarrhoea) you won’t see any of that,” says Gopalan, adding that the IBD is caused by multiple factors, one of which is stress. “IBD is immunologically mediated (relating to the immune system) and can be hereditary.” Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are two examples of IBD and bear the risk of colorectal cancer, while IBS is a part of a larger clutch of disorders of the gut-brain interaction (DGBI).
In a study published in Neurogastroenterology and Motility journal around ‘Medical students’ knowledge and perception of irritable bowel syndrome in comparison to inflammatory bowel disease’, it was found that “Biases observed in gastroenterologists toward patients with IBS originate as early as the beginning of medical school, including seeing IBS as a “less real” disease and more difficult to treat.”
What the study also does is to draw attention back to the way stress impacts the body, particularly the GI system. “There are two brains: the big brain and the small brain (nerves in the intestine),” says Shobna Bhatia, who heads gastroenterology at NIMS University, Jaipur, and is a member of the Rome V committee, The Rome Foundation, a global institution that provides medical information on the disorders of the gut-brain interaction (DGBI). The gut-brain axis is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system (the vagus nerve that regulates internal organ functions like digestion), and the sympathetic nervous system located across the body. Both are connected with the enteric nervous system located in the gastrointestinal system (the small brain). The two brains ‘talk’ to each other (exchange information), hence stress occurring in the big brain can cause changes in the small brain (butterflies in the stomach before an exam).
“Physiologically, stress affects the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, activates the sympathetic nervous system, releases inflammatory cytokines and cortisol. There are individual differences in the way it is perceived based on one’s genetic vulnerability, experience, and development,” says Alok Kulkarni, senior consultant psychiatrist at Manas Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Hubli. “Chronic low-grade stress keeps the HPA axis activated.” This has an impact on both IBS and IBD.
Good and bad news
Problems with the GI tract are usually easier to detect in children, because there’s parental supervision, says Gopalan. “If the parents don’t pick it up, the teacher might. With adults, it’s harder, because there’s no one monitoring them.”
Kulkarni says there are specific GI-directed behavioural therapies that use cognitive behavioural approaches to improve symptom-specific anxiety. “We cannot eliminate stress; we can only evolve mechanisms of coping better with stress,” he says, adding that aerobic exercise and yoga play a big role in dissipating stress. “Aerobic exercises release endorphins which not only boost mood, but also helps in coping better with pain. A regular yoga practice boosts brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels, important in learning and memory. Yoga also induces a relaxation response.”
A new study published in Cell journal shows how psychological stress leads to intestinal inflammation.
It describes the two pathways for the inflammatory response and the whole cascade which ultimately precipitates the disorder.
Chronic stress results in both physical changes to the intestine and a chemical imbalance resulting in functional changes to the intestine.
Psychiatrists prescribe GI-directed behavioural therapies that use cognitive behavioural approaches to improve symptom-specific anxiety, such as aerobic exercise and yoga.