By Sohini Ghosh:
The Budget 2014 emphasised on a revamped railways for our country, garnering a lot of attention. This somewhere indicated how desperately we needed to be regaled with such news courtesy the step-child treatment meted out to the railways by the UPA government for the past 10 years, with no significant reforms and sporadic growth of this sector.
How important is railways for our country? Extremely. As opposed to the common perception of railways earning their revenues from traversing millions of passengers daily across the length and breadth of the country, it couldn’t be so due to subsidies in passenger tariffs. The cash-strapped railways are thus heavily dependent on the freight, carrying close to 3 million tonnes of the same every day (which figures out at 31% of the entire freight of the country), ranging from petro-products to food grains. The railways play an integral role in coalescing markets and integrating trade nationwide, thus reflecting on our economic position.
A major point of deflection has been the government monopoly that has continued over the railways up until now, leading to stagnancy. However, there has been a promise of change and optimism with the introduction of PPPs in railways (public private partnerships). And a step forward was taken this August when we talk about partnerships, with the MoU that was signed between India Railways (India) and Czech Railway (Czech Republic) for ‘technical cooperation’ as stated by a senior Railway Ministry official. This would enable to fulfil the high-speed trains’ requirement with speeds ranging from 160kmph to upto 200 kmph that was mentioned in the Budget earlier this year. This MoU, valid for 3 years and extension of a year at a time thereafter, would also cover automation of freight operations, development of stations and workshop modernisation. Although a MoU is just an understanding and doesn’t necessarily imply implementation, as was seen when Mamata Banerjee gave in to populist measures at the cusp of her power as the Union Railway Minister, there is so much we can hope for.
Also, diversifying the existing railway services, the railway ministry, in collaboration with the ministry of human resources and development, is looking forward to establish a rail university to ensure manpower needed is absorbed right from the graduate level.
Sticking to the principle of e-governance, Centre for Railway Information(CRIS) would now allow a booking of 7200 tickets per minute as opposed to 2000 tickets earlier, along with aggressive tracking enabled by mobile and desktop applications, available free of cost. Along with better ticketing, the railways have introduced the Go-India smart cards along with many other e-initiatives to facilitate greater ease in manoeuvring through the complex network of railways that it is, and better mobility and time-saving tactics while keeping it user-friendly.
Although a lot of effort has been put in to ‘modernise’ this ancient institution of railways, security has been a factor that has been very conveniently overlooked. There has been no mention of reforming the security conditions in trains or stations per se, which is uncalled for especially in the aftermath of the Mumbai Attacks and increasing criminal activities. With the introduction of PPPs, there is a lot that can be achieved, especially with respect to automation and instrumentation that continue to be archaic and manually operated for the most part of it. Say for example at level crossings, often taking the toll of fatalities to an obscene number, given how vast our rail network is. Political appeasement continues to be an encumbrance with respect to introducing and implementing monumental reforms, and this needs to be eliminated. Corruption is another issue that needs to be tackled with much vigour as stated by our PM in his speech at Red Fort. Internal assessment should be done with and reformatively, introduction of third parties when it comes to inspection and recruitment of employees should be put in place to curb this menace to an extent.
Although the welcome change of subletting various sectors within the railways to PPPs is much appreciated, it is yet to be seen as to how effectively it is implemented. It is a necessary prelude to strengthen our existing infrastructure to give way to subversive technology that has been promised. There wasn’t a dearth of vision earlier. What we have perhaps perpetually lacked in was implementation of these visionary measures proposed while not surrendering to populist demands and vote bank concerns.