Indian Railways Dying a Slow Death: The Politics Behind It All

Posted on April 4, 2012 in Specials

By Astitwa:

From the toy trains of Darjeeling to the locals of Mumbai, trains have been a fascination for all Indians ever since the British introduced this form of transport in the Indian sub-continent. While the ‘Bajaj Chetak’ became a part of the national consciousness in the dominant license Raj era, the giant locomotives, trains had been a part of the national psyche ever since Mahatma Gandhi witnessed racial discrimination in the trains during his stay in South Africa in the early 1900s. Just like our fathers and grandfathers had a ‘Bajaj moment’ to share with us, we all have had some idyllic ‘rail moments’ since our childhood. But the idealism and romanticism that Indian railways have been associated to in the past several decades is now gone. We have been independent for almost 65 years and it has been almost two decades post-liberalization.

The grandeur of Indian railways hasn’t faded completely but it has lost its charm to some extent. An organization that has been hailed to be the backbone of the service sector in India is now loathed for being overburdened, inefficient and unsafe. Even if there has been no fare hikes in the last decade, Indians residing in any part of the country have some sort of discomfort in traveling by trains today. Given an opportunity, it can be easily stated that most of the Indians will prefer cars, flights and buses to trains. The Indian junta today chooses trains only if the distance is very long and other alternatives are too expensive to manage. So, what is the reason behind the debacle of the Indian railways? Why has it been reduced to an organization that thrives on the whims and fancies of the railway ministers, whose decisions aren’t based on principles of business and economy but merely on a populist agenda? How long can such a mammoth entity, which has a wonderful legacy of its own, function on external funds, borrowed money and subsidies? Is it the final wake up call for the railways?

Why is Railways Currently Messed Up?
The issues that have plagued the Indian railways have been in existence since decades and it is only now that the complications seem to be growing at a rate that can be the warning bell for the government. Media reports have been frequently talking about Indian railways going the Kingfisher way within few years although, in case of railways, the government is always there to bail it out, obviously from the tax payer’s hard-earned money.

Here are some significant issues affecting the Indian railways:

The ‘Poor and Populist’ Agenda
Riding on the miseries of the middle class family and the poor, almost all rail ministers have proudly abstained from any sort of fare hikes. The political drama involving Mamata Banerjee, Dinesh Trivedi, Mukul Roy, UPA-2 government and railway budget that happened a couple of weeks ago is a strong testimony to the crisis in leadership that ails railways. Right from the railway minister in 1990s ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhry to the successive ministers- Ram Vilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mamata Banerjee; all had been busy in allotting more trains to their constituencies for restoring their vote banks.

There have been no visionary leaders who could stand up for the railways and understand its debt, revenue methods and other constraints. Just because railways have been a PSU, railway ministers have treated it as an organization that can avert any financial risk. This has been the fundamental flaw leading to degradation of the railways.

Over-employed Organization
There is nearly 1.36 million-strong staff working for the Indian railways. More than 50% of the rail budget is allocated for wage payment, which is mind boggling. Added to these are millions of pensioners who are paid decently by the railways. Any attempt to downsize the overstaffed railways is met with intense reaction and protests. There have been no serious attempts to understand the exact staff railways actually need.

Lack of Vision
In its main report submitted recently, the Expert Group for Modernization of Railways, headed by Sam Pitroda states that with 7,083 railway stations, 1,31, 205 bridges and 19000 trains running each day, Indian railways happens to be the third largest rail networking in the world. It also states that every day nearly 23 million passengers travel by trains. This data turns to be nearly 7 billion people per year, which is again stupendous. Moreover, the report also highlights a very lesser known fact regarding railways. As per the report, nearly 40% of the total rail network carries nearly 80% of the total railways traffic! The 40% network includes Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai. By focusing on the 40% major networking and improving its technological infrastructure, the railways can drastically alter its sorry state of affairs. By channelizing its energy in the 40% network area, Indian railways can provide excellent and advanced facilities to its customers. Meanwhile, it can understand the needs of the remaining 20% traffic, if they really need railways or better highways and roads to get connected to mainstream society.

No Technological Developments
While China boasts of a high-speed railway network where trains run at 350km per hour, in India we hardly have any trains with such super-fast speed. This points towards the lack of technological growth that has afflicted the railways in the last decade. It is not surprising to observe business leaders and corporates traveling by flights owing to the unavailability of high speed trains in India. As Indian economy opens up further and India is set on to be a stronger economy, railways must focus on improving its technological worth.

Safety Issues
While accidents are a part and parcel of life, railway accidents have increased drastically in the past couple of years. This has again pointed out an obvious loophole in the Indian railways system. The percentage of budget allotted to safety issues is abysmal and it is certainly one of the major challenges facing the railways today.

Paucity of Funds
It is indeed surprising to discover that since the last decade, there has been no price hike in the rail fares. One minister, who dared to do it, was asked to leave his office within few days of his announcement! The Indian railways subsidises passenger fares by using freight income. An article in the Economic and Political Weekly by a railway veteran, states that due to excessive pressure on freight rates, it becomes tough for the industry to manage its funds and consistently subsidize passenger fares. This has been one of the major reasons for the consistent loss incurred by the railways.

As we can see, the Indian railways requires drastic changes in its attitude to handle the management issues plaguing this huge organization. There needs to be a complete makeover of the railways, with help from private sector, so that this great transport medium can continue with its legacy, by providing effective services to people and helping government generate sufficient funds to run railways on its own. A strong political will and cooperation from citizens can certainly keep the iron horses running effortlessly.