Indian Railways need Qualitative Revival than Quantitative Revival

NEW DELHI: After a long time the country appears to have got an effective railway minister in DV Sadananda Gowda. He has come with a positive reputation and lived up to it with a quick decision to hike passenger fare and freight rates as also his initial comments on the task ahead and how he wishes to fulfil it.

New Delhi railway station’s escalators continue to remain shut for over a few months now. The reasons may be anything, from shoddy manufacturing to callous maintenance, but definitely it is a glaring case of bad governance. The station managers seem to be ignorant about the word quality.

Not this alone, most important railway stations in the country are perfect models of sloppy governance. When the least important ones do not have any prioritised agenda to service people, the most important ones falter in almost all parameters of world-class quality.

Seldom a railway station gets a ramp to enable the physically challenged or the elderly cross platforms, especially in tensed times when a train reaches its platform or is about to whistle off. None has an elevator of any standard, what to think of ones that we find in metro stations in Delhi.

Even as the railways and their peripheries are the areas where three ‘C’s – Crime, Corruption & Coercion – and one ‘T’ (Terrorism) rule, there is another which works as an umbrella cover to the CCTV. It is vox populi or ‘V’. The inefficient workers in the railways, and around in the local civic system get political support to carry out shady activities, thus keeping the railway stations perfect bastions of trouble-spots. Everywhere there are signs of decadence, callousness, and crimes protected by the vox populi of the time. India Shining wanted to get away from all these delinquencies, and failed. India Growing needs to address all this now. And are we talking about quality here?

We lacked the sense of quality always. We tended to, or chose to, lack in the expected quality. Everywhere it had been the ceremony of innocence which was drowned as the best lacked all conviction, and the worst were full of passionate intensity. With the absolute majority in Parliament and a clear make-over in popular mindset in states all around – thanks to the fact that the parties SP, JD(U), BSP, RJD and Left have been virtually swept out of the arena of decision-making for good governance – will the party in power address the core issues about railway matters now?

If it does, the first stage of quality at governance in Railways would need to be addressed. For Railways are not alone the trains on rails and the stations, it also symbolises a society living in current times.

Indeed we can improve upon these situations. We can solve half these problems by training our daily wagers through sops at community colleges, vocational institutes at remote areas, villages, tehsils, district towns, small towns and in cities, which would also mean training the staff required for good governance in railways.

There can be incentives like better wages after getting free training at vocational colleges for masonry, electrician’s fundamentals, plumbing, wood crafting, carpentry, ironwork, gilding, welding, etc. Prime Minister’s Rojgar Yojna or 100-days’ work policy can be freed from real-politick, replaced by compulsory simultaneous education in vocational training institutes in remote areas, or even reformed or scrapped.

The idea should eventually be readdressed to empower even the remotest citizenry, forest-dwelling tribal communities, who would join the government’s drives to stop foreign agents from poaching Indian fauna or smuggling out Indian flora.

Where is the Money? We have the money. A few lakh crores of rupees in forms of 2 per cent funds saved annually from the PATs (profit after taxes) by the PSUs for various Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR). Most of the CSR savings in the public sector companies go unspent or might have indeed been spent without transparency.

The nation has a few lakh crore rupees in the coffers of the seven Maharatna PSUs (BHEL, Coal India, GAIL India, Indian Oil, NTPC, ONGC and SAIL).

It is interesting to note that the most of these Maharatnas regularly hit the worldwide Fortune 500 lists of great companies. The foursome indeed pursue the basic tenets of the six sigma module of ASQ, one of which is ‘Social Responsibility.’ But strangely, large areas of concerns – like the problems of the old and physically challenged people in crossing railway platforms, or of villagers who have to ferry a river everyday for going to schools, offices, vegetable market-places, or creating new forests through botanical afforestation to compensate the loss of flora and fauna at project sites – do not strike their imagination.

Where are the CSR monies to be spent other than meeting the basic needs of people? We have plenty on hands to do, such as infrastructure creation at railways stations, setting up skills institutes across the length and breadth of rural India, medical colleges and hospitals in small towns, crafting afforestations after pristine forests are cut due to necessary mining for development and many necessities like all this. A nation is grown, if it underbelly is healthy and well harnessed. The underbelly of India is the remote areas, where fruits of development do not reach.

Similar CSR funds could also be created through private sector corporations, even as some private corporation like the Tatas have already gone ahead for decades with the CSR innovation around their plants’ sites. Probably Tatas cannot be competed in its unique social connections all over, even the NTPC remains far behind the Tatas’ CSR schemes.

Other private corporations like those by the Reliance Group, Adanis, Birlas, Infosys, etc. are yet to catch up with the pragmatic imagination of CSR. When people do not know exactly how much is saved in the public sector on the CSR accounts and spent, it is also unknown whether or not there is any possibility to institute a culture of CSR in the private sector corporations.

Gowda, known for his clean image, briefly became chief minister of Karnataka when BS Yeddyurappa, the first BJP chief minister in the south, had to resign following the Karnataka lokayukta moving against him. One of Gowda’s key acts as chief minister was to introduce the Sakala scheme, which promised time-bound delivery of government services. But Gowda’s tenure as chief minister was shortlived as Yeddyurappa was able to get the national leadership of the BJP to oust him as he was not doing the bidding of the discredited former chief minister.

The clear-headed efficiency that Gowda may bring to his job is apparent from his sense of priorities. His first concerns are safety, security and service and then, only then, speed. This rather downgrades the pet project of the BJP — a high-speed rail network — though he has separately plugged for it in line with the party’s thinking. My guess is that by the time he gets a handle on the monumental threesome, it will be time to go to polls again.

In his first weeks in office, the railway minister has also done one right thing and expressed one positive thought. He has had a meeting with the iconic E Sreedharan, who has delivered the Konkan Railway and Delhi Metro. If Sreedharan were younger and put in charge of the special purpose vehicle for bringing in the high-speed network then it would in all probability have taken off speedily. The issue of funding could also be resolved as Gowda appears to be very open to ideas of public-private partnership and foreign direct investment.

Global high-speed railway equipment manufacturers will be happy to take a stake in the project to secure large orders. Equity via the FDI route for such a long-gestation project will be difficult to come by but long-term concessional finance, which will also serves the purpose, can come from development agencies like the Japanese one already engaged with the dedicated freight corridor.

But there is one problem in all this. If Sreedharan starts a massive operation to create the high-speed network he will invariably poach some of the most capable railway officials from the railways proper. Now the supply of these is not just finite but fairly limited. This will denude the parent of the best skills currently available with it and amount to a setback. This is particularly so because the recent spate of accidents, some through fires on running trains, indicates the organisation is in a state of crisis. At such times, if you want to dramatically turn things around, you need all capable hands on deck.

Gowda has also correctly highlighted the critical state of railway finances and pondered how they will fund all the investments needed for the projects already announced and launched. His observation that at current rates of funding, some of these projects will take 30-50 years to complete is telling.

The one weapon he has availed of, which was studiously sidestepped by most of his predecessors, raising passenger fares, will not be enough. But if fares still have some leeway, the case of freight is different. Raising these rates significantly (that’s where the big money is) will be counterproductive, leading to further surrender of market share to road transport.

Since budgetary support will be severely limited where does Gowda go from here? Unfortunately, he has chosen not to dwell on one major way of making ends meet — by tackling head on the issue of corruption. It is as layered as it is endemic in the railways. A recent study available to the railways points out that in three years the railways spent on repair and maintenance of capital assets as much as it takes to acquire them in the first place.

Corruption in tendering for repair and maintenance, and a lot else, is entrenched. Gowda has lamented that no more than Rs.25,000-30,000 crore is available yearly as investible surplus to the railways. If by addressing the corruption in tendering the railways can save a few thousand crores a year, that will be a significant additionality.

But there may be a reason why a practical politician like Gowda is not banking much on cutting down corruption. That is not a key agenda of the BJP, as it is of the Aam Aadmi Party. The BJP wants to get things done and not acquire a corrupt image like the Congress. It will take pains to ensure this and not allow entrenched negative practices to get in its way and certainly distance itself from those party men who come under a cloud.

How significant corruption is in the railways can be gauged from the fact that fires in running trains have spread quickly, turning them into major accidents with high fatalities, because the railways’ declared policy of using flame-retardant material for passenger coaches did not deliver. If the enquiry reports finally bear this out then it will point to corruption, compromising the tendering process for material used in a unit like the Integral Coach Factory in Perambur.

So the railways will probably run a bit better but not overmuch so and in significant ways it will be business as usual.

Indeed comprehensive Quality education in the country is not possible unless the ‘Social Responsibility’ concept is understood well without selfishness. Ideally, for a sensible democratic country, the resources have to be pooled in every year through joint public and private participation. This is the perfect approach to nation-building.