Bela Rail Wheel Plant waiting for its VVIP inauguration

Bela Rail Wheel Factoryबेला Bela (BELA): The official at the Rail wheel plant at Bela near Chapra has an air of nonchalance as he says: “We have not produced anything in the last two months but workers and technicians have been trained. Some quantity of wheel sets have been manufactured and supplied to various railway zones.”

In the private sector, such under-use of infrastructure and manpower would be considered blasphemous. But officials of the Indian Railways believe it is normal for a production-ready factory to be waiting for three years for the opportune time and date for inauguration by a VVIP!

Built over 295 acres at a cost of Rs 1,417 crore, the Rail Wheel Plant in Bihar is capable of producing one lakh “Box-N” type wheels (used in freight wagons) a year, but has manufactured just 13,000 wheels since it was declared ready for production in March 2012.

Thirty kilometers from Chapra is Marhoura, the location designated in September 2007 for setting up a plant to make high power diesel locomotives. But for the twisted and rusted signboard, there is nothing to show that a rail factory is be set up at the site.

Farmers, who have already been paid compensation for land acquired for the factory, continue to cultivate their fields. “Another round of protests and demonstrations to demand a bigger amount of compensation will begin when –and if – actual work on the construction of the factory commences,” quipped a local scribe.

Marhoura, in any case, seems far from being launched any time soon. Just 220 of the proposed 1,200 acres required for the factory have been acquired. Compensation has been paid for only about 75 acres. A similar story is repeated at the nearby town of Madhepura, where authorities proposed the setting up of an electric locomotive factory in 2007.

What do the narratives of Bela, Marhoura or Madhepura have to do with Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu’s ambition of yanking the Indian Railways out of its financial crisis? The consensus in the Indian Railways is that the sprawling organisation needs to address its freight versus passenger distortions. For every rupee earned by the railways, 64 paisa comes from freight, 34 paisa from passengers and the remaining 2 paisa from sundry earnings.

The railways has been unable to correct or reverse this situation because of its inability to scale up its freight operations. To be able to do this, it requires more wheel sets, more high power locomotives and more tracks.

The Bela factory, for one, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The plant – built by Larsen &Toubro – has been ready for commissioning but seven kilometres of track to link the factory with the mainline network of the Indian Railways is still being built.

The facility – declared by the railways as one of its production units in August last year – does not have a full-time general manager and approximately 30% of sanctioned posts are vacant. The  railways can be faulted for shoddy implementation, but not quite for its intentions. The Bela plant was conceived and built to augment the capacity of the Rail Wheel Factory at Bengaluru, but the manufacture of wheel sets has remained almost static in the past three years.

While the Bela plant has been idling, the Container Corporation of India – a public sector undertaking of the Indian Railways – has been importing wheel sets and axles every year. (Courtesy: HT)