Indian Railways go round and round

by K Vijayachandran




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(Reprint of an article written in response to the rail budget two years ago)

In December 2009, Mamata Banerji presented in the Indian Parliament the Vision 2020 document for Indian Railways (IR). In the introductory part of this document she had stated: “When I was the Railway Minister last time (1999-2001), Indian Railways was the second largest railway network under a single management in the world in terms of route length, after the Russian Railways. It has now slipped to the third position. Our Vision is to put it on the road to regain the Number Two position in the coming decade and thereafter gain the Number One position in the subsequent decades not just in size, but in every other significant respect.”


This, indeed, was a grandiose vision, not only about IR but also about the Minister herself. Within two years, after presenting her vision document, Mamata shifted to Kolkata and since then, she has been ruling over IR from the writer’s building, with the help of her nominee railway minister, Trivedi. Mamata is now unhappy over her nominee’s performance: First, he did not do enough for West Bengal and secondly he had proposed a seemingly unpopular revision of rail tariffs, in consultation with her arch rival, Pranab Mukherjee. The good old critics of Mamata from left, right and center, now have their last laugh over her vision document,


Indian railway ministers, as a rule, play populist games and try to do something extra for their native states. Mamata was no exemption, despite her tall talk on Vision 2020. Foreign experts and consultants have made dozens of proposals for reforming IR, as part of restructuring the national economy. However, they remained on paper, like the Vision 2020. The only agenda that got implemented, related to staff reduction: As a result, IR suffers from under-staffing today, in terms of quality as well as quantity: Present staff strength is around 14 lakh, two to three lakh less, compared to two decades ago. Last year, 80,000 new hands were recruited anew, and the current budget targets inducting one lakh new employees.


Manpower in IR was growing pretty slow even in the past, compared to its galloping output. True, with higher train speeds and better technologies, labor productivity increases. However, the historical data, presented in the chart “Indices of Growth”, show that, there was a 12 fold increase in output, in terms of passenger and goods traffic, with human resources stagnating or increasing only marginally. Not only staff strength but also the route kilometer length of IR has registered only a marginal increase after national independence. In Kerala, we had experienced a big improvement in rail traffic, but that is not the case with most other states. Very few Indian villages and towns in India got connected to the rail after the British left the subcontinent.


Rail penetration in the country continues to be far below the international experience, on the basis of geographical area as well as population. India has 71 route km of railway per million people, and 19 r-km per 1000 sqkm. This is far below that of USA (803/22), France (603/63), Germany (520/117) or Japan (192/63). China was far behind India in rail penetration, but it has more than doubled its route rail length after independence to around 65,000 KM.  It may be noted, however, that India was making large investments in doubling of lines as well as in gauge conversion. IR could increase the productivity of its manpower with the help of such improvements in track and related communications systems, as well as higher capacity traction equipment, as evident from the index chart.


Express and long distance trains as well as suburban trains were the major contributors for the 12 fold increase in the output of IR with relatively fewer employees. Quality of service as well as law and order on the tracks and stations were the major causalities in this blind pursuit for higher and higher worker productivity. A railway employee was a respected citizen during British days and even his modest quarters were looked up on with respect by common people. All these have changed now and railway employees were considerably devalued, socially, within the span of a generation.


IR has succeeded to keeping up its relatively good safety records; however crime rates were steadily increasing in recent years. People in general are unhappy with IR, despite its lower costs and more comfortable travel in comparison with alternatives. Dirty coaches, over-crowded and ill-maintained railway stations with extremely poor civic amenities, and not-so-polite employees whose services are strictly rationed, are the order of the day. Indian railway stations were noted for their safety, security, dignified environment, neatness all round and even good quality tasty food.


Plenty of working people retrenched by IR, as non-essential staff: with the stress on long distance express trains, neglect of passenger trains, a large number of our railway stations bear a deserted look, today. In the good old days, even the wayside stations were offering parcel booking services to anywhere in India, and had certain minimal go-down facilities. They have mostly disappeared, now. Railway stations in our rural districts are dying a natural death: their assets and facilities could be of use and economic relevance to local populations, if they are salvaged and properly maintained.


Indian Railways were created out of the numerous small rail systems, constructed by British East India Company, and the numerous other companies floated by foreigners. This imaginative PPP adventure of eighteenth century had set up the first rail system in the country in 1853, just four years before Sipoy Mutiny or the First War of Indian Independence. These decentralized initiatives were close to the local communities and local environment in their own ways and for their own reasons. There were numerous mergers and acquisitions of these small ventures, later, and spanning the two centuries: IR and its organization in the present form had evolved over the last six decades of national independence.


IR, as on now, (see Chart) is a complex organization and provides work space for some 14 lakh employees: They work in numerous enterprises, organizations and departments with varied objectives, occupations and assignments that are of great relevance to the national economy. Thanks to its historical background, IR happens to be the father and mother of not only most engineering disciplines in the country, but also of numerous non-engineering professions such as accountancy, project planning, economics, project financing, and even information technology. IR has contributed to the self-reliance of our national economy in a big way, and is a major resource for industrial development.


IR looks like a leviathan and is a bureaucratic organization, presided over by a cabinet minister, supported by one or two ministers of state, and then the Railway Board, its Chairman and half a dozen board members etc etc, and all connected up in series and in parallel. There are fifteen zonal railways, each administered by a General Manger, who looks after the construction and operation of rail lines and related systems of the zone. The nature and number of complaints with regard to their performance indicate that they will perform far better, if re-organized state-wise as in the case of P&T, BSNL, DD, CEA and Electricity Boards etc, and several other Federal Government functions.


It will be even better, if these state-wise organizations are then converted into public sector undertakings with equal shareholding by IR on behalf of Central Government and then by the concerned State Governments, as in the case of Delhi or Chennai Metro. A full fledged rail Minster and a skeletal rail department in every state, for servicing and supporting this joint enterprise will greatly enhance the policy planning capacity at the state level, with regard to rail development as well as planning of the transportation sector. As on now, the state governments have very little expertise in these sectors. This sort of basic reforms will bring the administration of our massive on-rail resources, closer to the people, and the elected Governments at the state as well as lower levels.


Production units of IR under the General Managers, Public Sector Units like CONCOR,  CRIS, IRCON, IRCTC, RITES, IRFC, as well as RDSO, as well as the R&D organization of IR should continue their autonomous existence as on now, and they should expand and diversify as necessary. Central Government and the Railway Board will be better placed to prioritize and monitor the work programs of these more important strategic organizations from a national perspective. They could effectively monitor the performance of the railways at the state level, but will be relieved from attending to minor responsibilities related to their day to day operations. IR will enter a phase of centralized policy making and decentralized administration: It has all the systems and procedures as well as checks and balances needed for this transformation, quickly and effectively. No external consultancy, Indian or foreign, will be needed for the purpose.


State governments will be only happy to share the responsibility of rail development in the country. Central Government could play its visionary role far more effectively. Business will be rewarded with a world class rail infrastructure. Workers and trade unions may not raise objections, so long as their rights and perks are protected. What is needed is a change in our mind-set to accept the participation of State Governments in the management of our national rail network. That sort of participation will be far more desirable, practical, and productive than all sorts of PPP models that are being designed and contemplated, now.


* Published in the Passline of March, 2012.