INDIA NEEDS A FEDERAL RAIL BOARD
By Engr. K Vijayachandran F.I.E
The first rail budget of Narendra Modi Government has disappointed the people and of most Indian states. Though the Prime Minister passionately intervened through visual media and expressed his solidarity with his rail minister, Sadananda Gowda, market sentiments stuck to the negative note: Shares registered an average loss of 3.5 percent in a single session.
It appears, the Railway Board , the Rail Ministry like most other central ministries and even the PMO continue to be infested and dominated by foreign financial consultants and agents of multinational corporations, as in the UPA days. Delhi reality is that, even before a Central Minister and his personal staff settle down in the new office, these experts and advisors are ready with policy papers and policy announcements.
Confluence of opinions on government budgets and policies by the lay public on one hand and market sentiments on the other, as in the case of IR Budget 2014, is rare and rather unprecedented. Possibly, the market down-slide was speculative and got sparked off by the unreasonable hypes, triggered by the regime change. However, the reasons for negative reaction from the general public were genuine. People were expecting announcements of new schemes, introduction of new trains, and for the expansion of rail systems that were long long overdue.
Census 2011 has counted a total of 598,110 census villages and towns in the country and there are only 7172 railway stations in the country. This means bulk of our population centers are unlikely to have a proper rail link. After the British left, only only 11,000 route KM has been added to the Indian rail system. Most this 20 percent increase was effected during the first four decades of national independence. During the twenty five years of economic reforms; annual addition was only around 100 KM or at the best around some ten new railway stations per year.
In fact this new additions did not even compensate for the closure of rail stations in the name of financial losses. With the stress on express and super fast trains and neglect of passenger trains, a large number of rural railway stations have a deserted look today and are facing closure. At the same time. many of the large stations look dirty, ill-maintained, user-unfriendly and overcrowded, despite the best efforts of the employees whose strength was being arbitrarily cut down at an average rate of 17,000 per year during the past two decades.
Planned retrenchment was resorted to on a large scale on the plea that, IR was a losing concern and has outgrown the real social needs. But 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 60 route km of railway per million people, and 20 route km per 1000 sqkm of land area. 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 at the time of its revolution, but it has more than doubled its route rail length during the past sixty years to around 65,000 KM.
Despite the cutting down of employee strength and slow down of network expansion during the two decades of economic reforms initiated in late nineties, IR had continued to increase its output in terms of passenger as well as goods traffic. Number of rail passengers crossed the 8.2 billion in 2011-12, a 6.4 fold increase in six decades, and in terms of passenger-km the increase was nearly 16 times. In goods traffic, IR was concentrating on long-distance bulk goods and its output increased to 667 billion ton-km, an 18 fold increase during the same period. (1)
With its 13 million skilled employees in 16 zonal railways, 8 manufacturing units, 12 public sector undertakings and a dozen or so service organizations, IR is mammoth business organization with an annual turnover of over Re. 123,000 Crore. It is a major resource base for the country with regard to engineering and technology development. Its potential to contribute to the economic development of the country is substantial even outside of rail development. But this is not being put to use, even for the expansion of rail network, as needed and desired by the people Indian states and their elected governments. IR budget presented in the Indian Parliament two days ago is an open confession of this sad reality.
It is now proved beyond reasonable doubts that, the economic reforms and structural adjustments forced on the country as part of the globalization drive, was an utter failure and a disaster in the case of IR. Starting some two dozen express and super-fast trains or opening up of ultra-modern rail corridors with bullet trains through the FDI and PPP routes, will not solve the basic problems facing IR. Only way to reach out the half a million Indian villages through a national rail network is to re-build IR on a federal basis, as visualized in my earlier blog (2).
Modi Government could have used the occasion of presenting its first rail budget as an initial step toward implementing the concept of Cooperative Federalism propounded in the Presidential address of Pranab Mukherjee (3). Instead, it has taken to the surrealistic game of flaunting toys like bullet trains that makes little sense in the current national context.
1. Calculated based on data from IR website: http://www.indianrailways.gov.in/railwayboard/
2. Paper titled, “Indian Railways: In search for a New Vision”, published in my book, Perestroika Glasnost and Socialism ISBN 978-1-4828-1353-1, published by Partridge. The book examines the possibilities of improving the efficacy of Indian State by reorganing it on federal lines based on the experience of USSR. The paper was republished as a WordPress blog: https://kvijaya40.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/indian-railways-go-round-and-round/
3. See my just previous last blog on Cooperative Federalism