Axe of privatisation on Indian Railways: One by one, national jewels are being sold off

The present government has failed to discuss such a major decision either with its own workforce or in Parliament. No public discussion has taken place either

Indian Railways (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
Indian Railways (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
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C Srikumar/IPA

If your train’s on the wrong track, every station you come to is the wrong station

-- Dernard Malamud

One by one, the country’s national assets are being sold. The latest ‘masterstroke’ of the Modi government is the privatisation of the Indian Railways. On July 1, 2020, the Railway Ministry announced that 151 trains in 109 pairs of routes will be operated by private sectors. The private sector will invest Rs 30,000 crores. Only the driver and guard will be railway employees; all other employees will be of the private company, who is operating the train. The private companies are free to procure train and locomotives from any source of its choice.

If that is so, then what will happen to the railway production units? The private train operations will begin by April, 2023. Once the private entities start operating the trains just like in private airlines, public travelling in the private train would have to pay for preferred seats, extra baggage and on-board services, etc. Railways has given the private train operators the freedom to fix the fare to be charged from the passengers.

Immediately after the announcement, as usual the ‘bhakts’ started welcoming the decision of the government by saying that “fares in private trains will be competitive, introduction of private players would ensure that the trains are available on demand, fare in private train will be competitive and private entity will ensure punctuality.”

Unfortunately, in our country the mainstream of the media, instead of speaking the truth without fear, has been reduced to being drum-beaters of the present government. The government continues its loyalty to the interests of the corporate sector and the common people’s interest are always buried.

Last year, the government took a decision that the Indian Railways will hive off all its seven production units and associated workshops like ICF Perambur, RCF Kapurthula, Modern Coach Factory, Raebareli into a corporation called Indian Railways Roll Stocking Company. All the production units are functioning efficiently, but even then the government wants to convert these production units into PSUs so that it can be sold out.

Let us see the reactions of some of the major political parties on the Railway Privatisation. D Raja, general secretary of CPI in a statement has said: “The Railways is not the only sector Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is handing over to the corporates. The government has opened the floodgate for the private sector to take over sectors like coal mines, banks, defence, oil, insurance, electricity, telecom, space and atomic energy. Any private entity investing Rs 30,000 crore will expect a huge profit from its investment resulting in huge increase in the ticket fare. Train, which is the common man's transport, will go beyond his reach”.

He alleged that “the BJP government does not have any concern for the common people. The government decision will take away the dream of the Indian youth, including those who belong to the socially and economically downtrodden sections to get a railway job.”

The CPI(M) politburo has said: “The Railway is a public service and not a profit-generating enterprise. Such privatisation undermines the basic of self-reliant economy. Contrary to the claim that this will boost job generation, past experience has shown that it will result in a huge loss creating insecurity for the employees of the Railways.”

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has said: “The Railways are the life line for the poor and the government is taking it away from them.”

The Central Trade Unions including AITUC, HMS, CITU and independent federations like AIDEF and AIBEA also opposed the move of the government and were critical about the government move. Raja Sridhar, vice-president of AIRF, reacted that “this is a beginning of total privatisation of the Railways. Prime Minister Modi, when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, had stated in a conclave that on the National Highways, private transports are running, on the sky, private airlines are flying, if it is so then why on the railway track private players should not operate, why should the government control what goes on the top of the track.”

One of the arguments being given by the government for privatisation is that during the year 2018-19, 8.85 crore passengers were in waiting list and Indian Railways was able to provide only 16 per cent reservation out of these waiting list passengers, and hence for capacity augmentation, private players are permitted to operate the Railways.

But what is the fact? Railways have increased 5.35 crore seats; out of these 70 per cent is in AC Coaches and 30 per cent was only left for the sleeper coaches. The government is not taking care of the common man's need. It is aiming only to earn profit.

On July 17, 2019, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal had a meeting with the Railway Coach Manufacturers and told them Railways required 2,150 train sets. The Integral Coach Factory, Perambur, has been manufacturing Train-18 Coaches for Rs 98 crore with 160 kmph speed. It was meeting all the required specifications. The Prime Minister himself changed the name from Train-18 to ‘Vande Bharat’.

This was the real ‘Make in India’, but now the 45 Train-18 Order given to ICF was stopped by the Railway Board. In the ‘Tejas Train’, which is being operated by private sector through IRCTC between Delhi and Lucknow, the ticket fare is more by Rs 700 to Rs 900. The running time is only 10 minutes less and one stoppage extra.

In the same train, the dynamic fare goes up to Rs 4,700. At present, for 1,000 km, the Railways are charging from Rs700 to Rs 900; for the same distance the private players will be charging Rs 2,200. The passenger has to shoulder this load.

Let us see what type of job has been created by the private Tejas Train. The lady employees are punished for the simple reason that their facial makeup was not up to the mark. These employees have to work 18 hours a day for a salary of Rs 15,000. Therefore, we cannot accept privatisation of Indian Railways.

Immediately after the announcement of the Railways to hand over 109 routes to the private sector, on July 2, 2020 the Ministry of Railways issued an order in the name of rationalisation of expenditure which says that there will be a freezing on creation of new posts except for safety. Surrender the newly created posts if recruitment has not taken place against those posts, surrender 50 per cent of the existing vacancies, it said.

The axe of privatisation has now fallen on the Railways. Railways are national assets which belong to the people of the country who are the tax payers.

Binoy Viswam, Rajya Sabha MP from the CPI has written a letter to the Prime Minister urging him to withdraw the decision of the government. He has appealed in his letter that “there is no dispute that the Indian Railways is in need of greater investment and updating. However, as a vital public service that connects people of the country, its privatisation is not a solution. The government should increase spending in the railway sector and implement effective solution that does not depend on the sale of national assets. The lives and livelihood of millions of employees of Railways depend on your action. I therefore urge you to withdraw the decision and invest in the improvement of the Railways without privatising it.”

India's most-respected ‘Metro man’ E Sridharan in an interview to the Outlook Magazine said: “Apart from IRCTC, I don't see anyone coming forward to run train. There are too many uncertainties. Two types of fare and two types of trains will create confusion. Private players will find it difficult to work with the Railways, and abandon it midway. It's a foolish idea bound to fail.”

Responding to the decision of the government, Shiva Gopal Mishra, general secretary of AIRF stated that the AIRF will protest against the government's decision to privatise part of the Railway operations. AIRF states that train passengers will be hit the most in case private companies run the train. “Railways has not been able to profitably run even the Tejas Train. Then break-even occupancy for these trains is 70 per cent, but it has not been more than 40-50 per cent on an average. So why a private company would put their money in a loss-making business.”

He further stated, “We are creating a platform where the general public would also been involved and a massive protest would be launched at grass root level.”

Guman Singh, president of the NFIR said: “While going in for privatisation, the government will destroy the Railways and make travelling costlier. We outrightly condemn the government's move. After discussing the issue with our central members, we would launch protest against it.”

The public transport system, whether it is State Road Transport Corporations or the Indian Railways are meant for the common man of the country. How can we allow these public service organisations to be destroyed? In countries like UK where the Railways have been privatised during the year 1990, people are now fed up with the private Railways and are demanding nationalisation of the Railways.

The present government has failed to discuss such a major decision either with its own workforce or in Parliament. No public discussion has taken place either.

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