The Great Indian Betrayal- How Populism is Destroying Indian Railways

By: Pathikrit
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The last Rail Budget of the UPA Government was much on the expected lines with 72 more trains being introduced and fares remaining unchanged. Though no one essentially expected any radical reform from UPA's last Rail Budget, especially since economic reforms have been out of the UPA lexicon for long time now, the enormity of the toll of populism that is having on the health of the Indian Railways is evident from the fact that the Rail Minister sought a whopping Rs 30,000 crore as budgetary support for the next fiscal.

The Rail Minister played the ceremonious Santa Claus by neither passenger fares nor freight rates. Thus while the Minister harped on the grand achievements of railways in terms of laying new lines, electrification of targeted lines, the bigger picture as usual was missing.

The Missing Big Picture....

The big picture so far as Indian Railways is concerned is that it is in a real mess and the next government would have stop the perennial culture of using Railways as a Milking Cow and undertake some extremely critical structural reforms for bringing railways back on track. The average speed of even the fastest trains of Indian Railways stand nowhere near to what the Chinese have achieved in the last one decade leave along the levels at which the Japanese and French have taken their railways to.

Therefore even while India's fastest trains log a speed on not more than 150 kmph and would take some time to even reach the level of 200 kmph, the Chinese have surpassed the 300 Kmph mark long time back and now have the longest fast train line in the world, from Beijing to Guangzhou covering a distance of 2,298 kilometres and running a whopping 300 trains on that line every day. Incidentally, to put things in perspective, TGV of France is testing a new engine with a speed of 574 kmph.

The Mess Called Train Journey- Don't We Deserve Better?

No one would argue against the fact that most train journeys in India continue to be a nightmare. Even a second class reserved compartment would ceremoniously have shortage of water complimented by stinking toilets even before the journey is halfway mark in addition to unwanted passengers thronging the reserved compartments at every station. Barring the Rajdhanis, Shatabdis and the Duronto Express, travelling in most other trains are still not very comfortable leave alone the security factor which is becoming worse by the day. One shudders to even mention how people are made to travel long distance in the unreserved compartments and how little hygiene factors are taken care of by the Railways.

China has gone far ahead of India in Modernising its Railways

Train Accidents and Robberies surprise no one anymore...

Incidentally even as the Rail Budget was perhaps being fine-tuned this month, news of robbery in Dehradoon Express and fire in the Howrah Rajdhari were pouring in, amply exemplifying the stark disparity between the hype and hoopla of launching new trains and the sheer lack of maintenance and security of existing trains. Most governments tend to score brownie points by announcing new trains and then no one cares two hoots about what has happened to the previously announced trains. It is now a norm than an exception when it comes to news of train accidents and cases of robbery and molestation on running trains.

The Indian Railway Station- We Surely Deserve Better

The least said about the railway stations the better. It is kind of bizarre to see how India's airports have become sleeker by the day, how India now has world class highways comparable to the best in the world even while the ubiquitous railway station even in big cities continue to rot and often one finds mankind, dogs, cats and even rodents all jostling for space. The Indian railways station is at the same time an arrival and departure port, a hawker zone, a spittoon, a garbage area, an area of crime and pickpockets, imbued with beggars and ticketless travellers as well as a prime hub for all kinds of crimes. It turns out to be an even bigger nightmare when one train is delayed and passengers for the next train arrive in the same platform. Successive years keep passing by, new trains keep getting launched but the legacy of dismal stations continue.

What the Next Government Should Do...

Considering that this was an interim budget and the next government in power would come out with a new budget, there is no doubt that Indian Railways is craving for the much needed reforms to rescue herself from the predicament that populism has reduced itself to. Its sheer exploitation as a machine for vote bank politics and miniscule rise in tariffs for more than decade meant that the creaking infrastructure is crying for massive refurbishing. Over the next five years or so Indian Railways would require massive infrastructure upgradation in addition to nothing less than a corporatisation of Indian Railways which still is run on the legacy of the Imperial Raj and have till date have refused to change.

Why Can't Indian Railways be Transformed into a Corporation like Indian Oil or NTPC?

Railways need fresh breath of energy and radical reforms in its accounting process. Its accounting process shockingly is still on the single entry system instead of a double entry system prevalent worldwide. There is no reason why Indian Railways cannot be converted into a corporation like ONGC, NTPC or the Indian Oil for better accountability and efficiency. The departmental running of railways would have to stop. It should stop being the fiefdom of a minister and enormous powers in the hands of Indian Railway Board officials. Each of the Railways divisions should be converted into independent profit centres and Railways should concentrate on its core competence rather than making running with the Jurassic mentality to manufacture all and sundry including mineral water.

The professionalization of railways should not stop there and there is an urgent need to bring it out of the babu culture before it becomes another Air India story which is perennially on loss and with a bleak future to look up to. Today Indian Railways needs to become more competitive. Today India needs massive investments in the railways and the Indian private sector should be welcomed to contribute into its reformation. There is no reason why India cannot have FDI in the manufacturing of railway engines and wagons. Also, some of the best Indian engineering companies including the likes of L&T and BHEL have enough engineering capability to churn out world class engines for faster train service.

Change the Culture- Rest Will Happen

The attitude of ‘Nothing can be done' and that ‘Railways is too big to bring systemic change' should change. If E Sridharan can create world class metro rail right in this country with the same engineers who were part of Indian Railways, then it merely vindicates that the issue is never of capability but the management culture and that of the passionate intent to bring reforms which perhaps is now lacking. Indian Railways needs to be a dreamer and dream to convert a moribund colonial legacy into a world class transporter comparable to the best in the world. It is nothing less than dismal that a nation with capability to launch space missions to Mars would still have an appalling national train service which is nowhere near to global standards of speed and quality.

There is no doubt that Indian Railways is like the backbone of India which connects India like no one else. And this is all the more reason that the railways which have served the nation so well for so long is now given the much needed nutrition. If we as a nation fail to do so, someday railways would fail us.

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