Railways In Dire Straits
By Dhurjati Mukherjee
There are talks of reorganizing the railways to gear up efficiency and ensure its effective functioning. This is all the more necessary due to the fact that the railways have to undertake expansion and modernization plans, though its finances are a matter of concern. Add to this is the need to upgrade infrastructure, convert single line to double line tracks and ensure proper safety measures.
In such a situation, asserted Railway Board Chairman VK Yadav, “Railways are in the process of rationalizing its passenger and freight charges.” Adding, “Though the railways had launched several measures to offset its dwindling revenues, increasing fare was a sensitive issue”. Predictably, just after his announcement of rationalizing fares and freight rates, there has been a minor hike in passenger charges, which was possibly unavoidable.
The estimated expenditure of railways, possibly the largest of its kind globally, including pension of 13 lakh employees is Rs 2.18 lakh crores but it earns around Rs 2 lakh crores. Moreover, nearly 25% of the income around Rs 50,000 crores goes for pension. Alongside, nearly 50% of the 34,000 km railway network that carries 96% of traffic is still single line. Thus, reviving the financial health of the national carrier is imperative at this juncture though this may go against popular sentiment.
Importantly, the railways have been seriously considering reforming itself since the past two decades. Several committees namely the 2002 Rakesh Mohan Committee, 2012 Sam Pitroda Committee and the 2015 Debroy Committee had come out with several recommendations. The most important being to reform the railway structures and reorganizing cadres.
The present reorganization includes merging eight different Group A services into one vertical called the Indian Railway Management Service (IRMS) though it would have been better if these were merged into two verticals — one technical and the other non-technical —- as recommended by the Debroy Committee.
Also there are talks of elevating the post of Chairman from the present status to a well defined Chief Executive officer (CEO) and reorganizing the Railway Board on functional lines, including infrastructure, operations and business development, rolling stock and finance with each headed by a Board Member.
Undoubtedly, these contemplated measures including merging of departments and rationalizing cadres is a judicious decision. But the question that is vital at this stage is whether these would improve functioning of the railway system, unless professionalization is injected into the whole organization? Given the reorganization and modernization plan entails an investment of around Rs 50 lakh crores by 2030. No matter, this sounds a little too optimistic.
Foremost, there is a vital necessity is to inculcate sincerity and dedication among employees. But what is also needed is to decentralize the railway machinery and delegate more powers down the line to senior level officers. These two are equally important as reorganizing top level officers, who mostly work on reports received from the ground level.
The other crucial job is to curb wantonness down the line, notwithstanding corruption has greatly decreased over the years. However, reports indicate that there is large scale favouritism in granting both large and small orders —- sometimes dictated by ruling politicians —- and postings. No one can say that Indian Railways is a professional organization and the need of the day is just not to inculcate advanced technology but to make it truly professional in letter and spirit.
While thinking of reorganization, there is need to boost up revenues apart from the known sources of increase in passenger and freight rates. Modernizing stations and renting space to private parties or even selecting some stations to be managed on public-private partnership model needs to be seriously considered and implemented. Additionally, use of railway vacant land for productive purposes should also be considered and a beginning be made in the next financial year.
Needless to say, the import of coaches and many other items has been a big drain on the railways. Hence, it is necessary to draw plans to manufacture modern coaches and all sophisticated items through collaborations with foreign countries so that employment is generated and there is saving on foreign exchange.
Undeniably, the country has ample number of technical persons along-with some residing abroad and the expertise of such experts could be used for import substitution and other highly technical work, whether relating to engineering or IT.
Effectively all these measures should be so geared as to transform the railways into a professional body which would stand the test of time. Further, consultancy work of the railways has to be given special impetus so that many small and medium countries approach us for various types of jobs, including modernization and expansion of their railways networks.
Possibly a series of earlier reforms have started showing initial results. Reports indicate that the pace of capacity augmentation works such as doubling of lines -— even tripling -— electrification etc. has gone up significantly. But a lot more needs to be accomplished in such a big country serving 1.3 billion people.
Furthermore, apart from modernization expand its reach in remote areas of the country, specially in the North East. At this juncture with the Government facing a financial crisis, how much investment it will make in the coming years remains a big question?
Add to this, with focus on such unavoidable expenses like high speed bullet train (from Mumbai to Ahmedabad etc.), essential work relating to doubling lines, electrification, construction of additional bridges in big stations, regular maintenance including proper cleaning of toilets might suffer unless there is either support from the Government or investment from other sources.
Certainly, reform measures appear quite encouraging but only proper implementation of the recommendations will achieve the desired purpose. However it is generally believed, that in our country implementation records are not quite good. One hopes the Government would be serious in revamping the 160 years old railways. —— INFA