Friday, April 20, 2012

Who owns the Indian Railways?

Indian Railways, the biggest employer of India, is in a sorry state today. One might say that the government or the ministry owns it. The truth is, nobody owns public property. Just because it is public and there are so many stakeholders with their own interests, agendas and propagandas that the mere existence of the public property is sidelined, forget growth and upgradation.

Properties like the Railways’ also have to bear civil unrest. Any group or mob can hi-jack a train or create hurdles in its normal functioning. Some would uproot the rail tracks or blow it off. This happens at the cost of people suffering. Not many care about it. During peak season or festivals it is a common view to see people occupying every inch available in a compartment. There is someone or the other sitting in every nook-and-corner, in the aisle or near the common place, everywhere. Some travel on the roof or some hang on to the windows. Some fall down, get injured or even die, but this goes on and on.
Some feel that this is the maximum utilization while others term it as exploitation of the resources. I personally believe that there should be sufficient transportation options available so that there is no over-occupancy. This can be achieved by – increasing the capacity or increasing the no. of runs or adding new trains or routes. We also want to have cleaner; more hygienic and comfortable compartments and faster trains. The Railways is also looking for electrification of some routes so that diesel engines can be replaced with more efficient electric engines. We aspire to have bullet trains running on our railway tracks. For all this to happen, the Railways need money.

It was 8 years ago that the Railways had last increased the passenger fares. Since then the fuel prices have considerably gone up. This has resulted in increase in fares of other modes of transportation – the roadways and the airways. The airlines who offer low fares collect full rate on the fuel surcharge. The road transport services have also hiked their fares. Then why cannot the Railways hike fares?
To add to the woes the salaries of the employees are also rising, attributed to inflation or other such reasons. The ministry also plans an upgradation and keeping a check on the cost of maintenance. To achieve this objective, ex-railway minister, Mr. Dinesh Trivedi had proposed a minor increase in passenger fares in the current railway budget of 2012-13. It was a really small hike and would not have affected the passengers’ pockets much. The passengers did not panic, the market welcomed the move but some political well-wishers of the passengers did not like the plan.

It hurt them so much that they dared to call-it-off if the minister did not roll-back the plan or quit. The well-wishers who are not moved by the rising – inflation, fuel and grocery prices – are moved by the paltry hike in passenger fares. They never complained for a hike in airfare or road transport tickets’ prices. As they only care about the Railways and its passengers. They challenged and coerced the government, the minister and finally the former had to bow down and the latter had to quit.

The new minister did not do anything great. He skipped some items and rolled back rest of the plan of his predecessor. The hike in fares was rolled back for second class, sleeper, et al. while he left the hike in fares of First Class and Second Class AC (I am not sure which all he skipped, but he did skipped some of them).

Now there is no “well-wisher” who would challenge the new minister and his proposal. No one knows what he would do with the Railways and its huge pool of resources. All we know is our neighbor is not keeping quiet. China is modernizing its railways, extending its reach everywhere – from near Mt. Everest to the last edges of south-east Asia and Eastern Europe. It would help China spread its influence over these geographies. It’s time we start acting fast by modernizing our railway system so that it is newer, cleaner, safer and more comfortable for the common man and help in the development of the country as a whole. If nothing happens now, one day, the Railways, a cash-cow would end up being the likes of Air India and Indian Airlines.
Time to think!


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