Railways off the track: Time to say good bye to populism?

By ZRG | Updated: May 16, 2013, 15:53 PM IST

Ajay Vaishnav/Zee Research Group

CP Joshi’s stop-gap return to the Rail Bhawan following Pawan Kumar Bansal’s controversial exit has unravelled the key infrastructure ministry’s woes. The first and foremost challenge for a new minister would be to impart a sense of direction and purpose to a ministry that has become a bait in the coalition era. The pursuit of unabashed populism has come at the cost of railway’s modernisation plans and neglect of passenger safety.

For starters, the ministry has suffered severely due to change of guard in the last four years. The rail ministry has already seen four full time ministers in the last four years along with CP Joshi’s two stints as a stop-gap arrangement including the latest. With an impending Cabinet reshuffle, the rail ministry may well end up seeing seven ministers in five years surpassing the record of 1967 Indira Gandhi regime that saw the key infrastructure portfolio changing hands six times.

While it did experience some continuity under Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool leadership failed railways by pursuing her own populist agenda geared towards winning the West Bengal Assembly elections in 2011. Even during much of her term, the ministry functioned on autopilot. Deaths due to train collisions were maximum at 239 in 2010-11. We all know the circumstances related to controversy over rail passenger fare hike vis-a-vis Dinesh Trivedi and his sacking by Mamata and Mukul Roy’s appointment and exit from the ministry.

But, Congress’ return to the rail ministry after a gap of 18 years did no good to party’s already battered image. While the ‘cash-for-position’ scam will occupy another place in the long list of scams of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the seven-member Railway Board (the highest decision-making body in the rail ministry) being under the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) scanner is unprecedented in the history of the railways. Reeling from a bribery scandal, the Railway is under the Central Vigilance Commission spotlight as well. In its annual report for 2011, the watchdog received 8,805 complaints against as many railway officials, compared with 8,330 in the previous year.

The latest change of guard has affected when Indian Railways was gearing to transform itself into a dynamic mode of public transport. Post-1995, the ministry of railways has more or less become a bargaining chip for coalition governments. Whether it was the National Democratic Alliance or the UPA, Railways became bait to please allies. Run like personal fiefdoms, the regional partners, in turn, have used the Railways to pursue their short-term electoral agenda. Each time a regional satrap becomes a railway minister, a new crop of trains are launched, and the region to which the minister belongs, becomes a favoured destination. The unabashed populism and mismanagement was especially a hallmark of the railways under the Trinamool Congress in the UPA-II.

Absence of a national outlook further prevented the Railways from transforming into a modern public transport with minimal political interference especially in setting service charges. With Bansal’s exit, the setting up of the rail tariff authority, which was aimed at institutionalising the segregation of the railways’ tariff-setting powers from those of the Railway Board, may never take off. A new rail minister, if not from the Congress, may go against the decision.

The challenge for any new minister would be to meet railways’ modernisation plans, which seem to be caught in a time warp. In fact, Sam Pitroda headed ‘Expert Group for Modernisation of India Railways’ has cogently argued for rapid modernisation and set out a road map for it. The panel estimates that Rs 8,39,140 crores required in the next five years and says that Rs 8.23 lakh crore is available. However, the challenge is to augment internal revenues of railways. The Pitroda panel has even suggested revamping of the railways in corporate style where the Railway Board members will look at different business verticals.

Likewise, the Anil Kakodakar led ‘Expert High Level Safety Review Committee’ proposed investment in tune of Rs 1,03,110 over a period of five years. Playing to the populist gallery, successive ministers have announced more passenger trains without caring for maintaining efficiency and security in rail operations. Over 1,200 persons were killed in various train mishaps in India in the last five years, with accidents at unmanned level crossings accounting for 717 fatalities. In the last five years, the total number of persons injured in train accidents was 2,124, out of which, 469 were injured in 2010-11. The congestion caused by passenger trains affects the efficient carriage of revenue-earning freight traffic. The lack of a dedicated freight network, in turn, slows down passenger traffic. It is, if anything, a vicious trap.