Railways need a complete change of direction, not just the minister

Cosmetic changes, attempts at privatisation, increasing fare, reducing manpower, giving contracts to firms owned by BJP leaders are just some ways in which Railways have shot itself in the foot

Photo courtesy: PTI
Photo courtesy: PTI

Sudiep Shrivastava

After three accidents in five days, one of which was deadly enough to kill 24 passengers hardly 100 kms away from the principal seat of power‎, the Railway Minister offered to resign from the Cabinet taking moral responsibility. This is being hailed widely since barring Lal Bahadur Shastri and Madhav Rao Scindhia, none of the other Railway Ministers had the courage to resign on moral grounds.

Surely Suresh Prabhu is a good man with a heart full of emotions, but the question is whether he was powerful enough to call the shots in the Railways or if he was just a face as in many other ministries of Modi Government, which are being run by the PMO.‎ Suresh Prabhu is neither a political heavyweight nor a core RSS or even a BJP person. His appointment as the Railway Minister by the Prime Minister had in fact not gone down too well with his previous party the Shiv Sena. So, from day one he was indebted to Modi Ji’s “Kripa” and obviously his capacity to assert in the face of the PMO on crucial issues must have been limited.

The phenomenon of having Apna Aadmi is very strong in Modi Government even at the cost of quality. The cases of CBFC and FTII Chairmen, Pahlaj Nihalani and Gajendra Chouhan respectively are classic examples of that. ‎But the situation is the same every where. The resignation spree in Rail Bhavan revealed that the Head of the Railway Board had actually retired a year ago but he was appointed on a “contract” for two more years. This could not have been done by the Railway Minister alone as the approval of PMO and the Appointments Committee would have been necessary.

Appointing a retired person as he was perceived as Apna Aadmi would have surely blocked chances of promotion among the next level of officers. Isn’t it sufficient reason to demotivate those officers and allow the organisation to drift ? What would have been even more shocking was when Modi Govt appointed Ashvani Lohani, an officer of the Indian Railway Services as the CMD of Air India, and who has now been appointed as Chairman, Railway Board in place of AK Mittal.

Lohani’s claim to fame is that he created a situation in which Air India has been put on the block for sale even when the Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathy Raju was not in favour of this.

The PMO wants a new road map for Indian Railways. From Bullet Trains to mega expansions have been envisaged since 2014. Since fund is a big problem, PMO forced many amendments in commercial circulars governing passenger fares. This includes drastic changes in Refund Rules which makes any refund either negligible or impossible. Charges for cancellation have also been increased beside increasing fares on one pretext or the other.

The unpopular flexible fare scheme of Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto is one such anti people step which is even contrary to the basic principle of free market economy which fixes prices on demand and supply. But under the flexi fare the fare is increased by 10 per cent on every 10 per cent booking till the 50 per cent booking is achieved. After 50 per cent, the fare is fixed as 50 per cent above the normal fare of Rajdhani, Shatabdi. The practical outcome of this scheme is that the passenger ends up paying 50 per cent extra fare even when the trains are running with many seats empty.

The earning of Railways rose in the last three years but the money so earned was not preferentially allotted to Railway Safety. Instead, many mega expansions were planned and commenced in one go. The result is evident as Rail construction being a specialised activity, many companies which do not have the requisite experience in laying of railway lines are still being allowed to bid and get contracts.

It is also necessary to note that the list of such companies includes SMS Infrastructures Ltd. of Ajay Sanchi, a BJP MP and DeeVee Projects Ltd. owned by the son of another BJP MP Bansi Lal Mahto. The latest accident involving Kaifiyat Express is the result of the contractor not following the SOP in which his Dumper blocked the path of the train.

Railway Safety is a major issue but it’s even bigger in the list of neglected issues. The deadly practice in the Indian Railways of late is about allowing maintenance work without taking any official block. Operating Department is the real boss which dictates every other department including engineering. ‎The unofficial block requires oral communication which is always risky if any person in loops makes a mistake or is just careless. The Utkal Express accident is a clear example of that.

Another similar trend is running “Jumbo Rack” specially for coal transport which is the main revenue source of Railways. In this dangerous practice, two full 58 wagon coal racks are joined and run together. Almost all loop line of Indian Railways has a maximum capacity of bearing 75 wagons at most except in big yards; therefore the remaining 31 wagons stand on main line. This practice is also waiting for a big collision before experts start debating and give it a second thought.

The enhanced earning of Indian Railways was required to be invested in Railway Safety first but the same was ignored and more emphasis was placed on eye catching and popular steps like having electric elevators, lifts, food plazas, LED lights, solar roof top panels. No one knows who are the main suppliers in this new category, but it’s a fact that these ornamental things can wait but safety concerns cannot.

Last but not the least is the issue of work force. Indian Railways had 16 Lakh employees in 1997‎ and 20 years later, when the work load has almost doubled, the work force has been reduced to 14 Lakh.

Successive Governments have been trying to shift from the concept of Railway as a Public Transporter to making Indian Railways a commercial entity. Rakesh Mohan report of 1999 and many such efforts are on the same line. It is true that technology improvement has reduced manpower requirement but considering the fact that work load has more than doubled, this reduction which is mainly in the track and maintenance staff of Group D cannot be justified.

Maintenance of carriage and wagon, track and signals can not be avoided for want of manpower which is happening nowadays. Many free market pundits want Indian Railways to be privatised, they must know that Indian Railways adopted privatisation in catering services 15-20 years back and the latest CAG report gives a correct but dismal picture of the same.

Indian Railway needs to be re invented again as a primary public transporter with a clear social obligation as its top priority. For this it requires technology, safety instruments, sufficient manpower‎, reasonable expansion by engaging experienced people. All this require higher share of budgetry support which has been on the decline since 1991. The decision of merging Railway Budget with the Main Budget is also a negative step as it avoids direct scrutiny of the only department of the Central Government which is directly connected to the masses.

The Government ought to recognise these aspects but the talk of merging Railways in one big Transport Department points to the likely path to be taken by it. If that happens, it will not be good for Indian Railways.

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