Apt and timely issues about Indian Railways raised by Mr Derek O’Brien

An honest appraisal will help trace many of IR’s ills today to his own party

It is indeed heartening to find the leader of Trinamool Congress Party in Rajya Sabha, Mr Derek O’Brien incisively analysing in a column in Times of India (16 February 2017) the current state of the national carrier, Indian Railways, especially in the context of its 93 years old separate budget having been subsumed by the country’s general budget.

Mr O’Brien will do well to remember what the German poet Heinrich Heine said, “Today is a result of yesterday’s actions”. The stark deficiencies which today afflict the gargantuan organisation have been accumulated especially over the last couple of decades and trace their genesis in myopic, if not maniac, policies and precepts inflicted on it by political satraps as presiding deities in Rail Bhawan.

Mr O’Brien seems to have problem with the very premise of his refrain, when he terms “only the few paragraphs” in the unified Union budget to be a “demotion from a full fledged speech”. He goes off the track while diagnosing IR’s real ailment. In fact, it was a full fledged speech in Parliament that afforded a platform to a Rail Mantri, who in coalition governments as a rule exploited to win plaudits for narrow, partisan ends.

At any rate, a separate rail budget, nowhere else in the world, lost its relevance long back. It is to the credit of the government now that this anachronistic practice has been scrapped. Of course, Government has still much to do. It needs to take the next logical step — abolish the Ministry of Railways itself, as Russia and China have done, and as most of the world manages its transport, that is, have a composite Transport Ministry to be able to, in Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s words, synergise the investments in railways, roads, waterways and civil aviation.

Mr Brien will be able to find almost all the answers to his pertinent concerns about railways (for example, low freight earnings, financing of railway projects, balancing of earnings and expenditure, fear of IR falling in a debt trap, dearth of money for depreciation and essential safety works, et al.), if he only recalls the bizarre developments that marked IR’s annual budget 2012–13 authored by his own party colleague Mr Dinesh Trivedi.

Mr Trivedi had barely completed his budget speech in February 2012, when nothing short of his scalp was demanded by his party boss. Trivedi’s fault: like an entrepreneurial professional, he tried to diagnose the serious ailment afflicting IR, mostly due to continued populist policies that, in his own words, pushed the cash-crunched behemoth to an “intensive care unit”. He prescribed broad contours of a mild, but essential, reform agenda, including some increases in passenger fares which remained stuck for as long as a decade “at a ridiculously low level”, then causing an annual loss of over Rs 21,000 crore (in a yearly business turnover of Rs 27,000 crore)!

The model of heavy cross subsidy followed on IR, Trivedi believed, was not sustainable; if this continued, railways would lose freight traffic to road. What Trivedi had proposed would, in fact, tantamount to a case of too little, and certainly too late. Even that too was not to be.

As the country generally lauded the rail budget presented by Rail Mantri, none could comprehend that his party would denigrate its own leader, even terming him as a Mir Jafar. Did Minister Trivedi have premonition of fracas that his much warranted rail reform agenda would unleash when, while presenting his budget 2012–13 in Lok Sabha, he said, he chose to “bite the bullet” going in for “a generational change”. He felt convinced that the only way forward was by tightening the belt, some bitter pills to be swallowed. When finding fault with IR now pursuing some 70 programmes in collaboration with respective state governments, Mr O’Brien may well like to recall the initiatives taken by his party colleagues, including the chief herself as Railway Minister, to ardently seek partnerships in order to augment resources for execution of railway projects. As Mr Trivedi then maintained, some thirty projects in ten states were being executed with contribution from state governments.

More than 50% of IR’s ordinary working expenses remained committed to payment of salaries to its 1. 4 million employees and pension to 1.2 million others. It inducted costly technologies, yet carried half a million Group ‘D’ employees, mostly unskilled. Most expert bodies advised IR to prune its work-force by half a million; instead, as Minister informed, IR was mandated to recruit 80,000 new employees in one year, and would induct another 100,000 next year! It defies all logic how one could gloat over the “recruitment process…set in motion for filling the vacancies of about 1.75 lakh in Group ‘C’ and Group ‘D’ posts”, when, instead, there was a proven case to cut the strength by at least twice this number. Not unoften, hue is raised about ‘vacancies’ of posts kept unfilled. Firstly, it is incorrect to label all vacancies to be in safety-related categories; then, vacancies in government establishments are reckoned vis-a- vis sanctioned strengths which must perforce vary in accordance with real needs, also influenced by efficiency-induced aids and systems. Contrary to cherished expectations on the strength of her acknowledged enthusiasm, energy and devotion, the trinity of Didi’s lodestar — Maa, Maati, Maanush –sadly left an impression mainly of — Me, My party, My vanity.

While IR groaned under its inability to garner adequate resources for investment, it was saddled with avoidable liability of a plethora of projects, some of them in joint ventures, in sectors like manufacture of wagons and components, which needed preferably to be done in private sector.

Illogically, a flurry of projects came to be executed by IR itself or amongst its captive PSUs, for example, manufacture of diesel multiple units at Sankrail, reefer containers and bogie frames therefor at Budge Budge, on-track machines at Uluberia, wheel axles for BOX ’N’ wagons at New Jalpaiguri, stainless steel wagons at Kulti, a loco components unit at Dankuni, an EMU factory at Kanchrapara, a wagon components factory at Jellingham, a wagon prototyping centre at Kharagpur, a 1,320 MW power plant at Adra.

IR was left to remain content and smug with peripherals — flagging off “only ladies” or “Duronto” trains, Izzat passes and Yuva travels, frittering away even its land resources on extraneous engagements such as social and cultural centres, medical and educational institutions. There was little done to stem the steady loss of IR’s modal share, increase its capacity, cut costs. Weren’t IR’s finances in the budget 2011–12 arranged to look unrealistically robust. In the preceding fiscal 2009-10, the various funds (Depreciation Reserve Fund, Development Fund, Capital Fund, Pension Fund) were drawn down by Rs 10,623 crore for the balance sheet to look somewhat healthy.

Mr O’Brien has raised hope of an introspection across the country’s leadership to provide the requisite direction and impetus to duly nurture India’s vital and precious institutions, notwithstanding genuine differences across the political spectrum. Our railways, like the military, is a supreme example which knits the country together and provides sinews of strength.