New Delhi: Former Union Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi explains that the Railways is about generating long-term economic benefits, not profit. Dinesh Trivedi, who chairs the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways, is remembered more for his short stint as the Railways minister in the UPA-II regime when he was removed from the post by his party supremo Mamata Banerjee for proposing a hike in passenger fares. In an interview, the Trinamool Congress leader says the political system does not understand the Railways’ strength and has always used it as a political tool. He warns that the carrier may go the Air India way if it is handed over to civil servants or outside experts. Excerpts:
In the Standing Committee report you talk about funds crunch. What’s the way out?
We need to understand the strength of Indian Railways. I can tell you the political system has not understood its strength.
It’s a goose that lays golden eggs. If you cannot have a strong transportation system, you can never ever be a modern country. Look at a country’s transportation system and that will tell you which stage of development the country is in.
We are still exposing passengers to a system that is not 120 per cent safe. If you cannot replace your assets as per requirement, you are putting poor passengers to danger. That’s not so for the rich. If an aeroplane is required to change tyres, say, after 500 hours of flying, and if this is not done, it does not get a certificate of airworthiness. It can’t fly.
The Railways have very clear rules for assets that require replenishment. So, you need to put money into replenishment or the depreciation fund. Today, you have bare minimum assets waiting for renewal, which require ₹49,000 crore. Food is getting rotten because you do not have a good transportation system. You cannot contain inflation, as you don’t have a good transportation system.
But where will the funds come from?
Why are you building roads? Just now, we ordered some defence aeroplanes — Rafael. Getting funds is the government’s job. There are 101 ways of getting funds without putting the burden on poor or middle class, not even the rich.
Can you give one example, of how to do that?
If I were the Finance Minister, I would easily collect ₹10 lakh crore extra. I would bring down the income tax rate to flat 20 per cent. How are modern systems like Japan Railway built? Show me one country where the government has not built the railway. You want the Railways to earn, plough back money, but want fares to be almost free. That does not happen.
You raised the question about the Railways’ social obligation versus commercial entity…
Read any document on the Railways, it is defined as a commercial entity. So, be sure what you are! If you are commercial entity, you have failed because you are bankrupt. If you have social obligation, even then you have failed.
If a guy in Buxar wants to connect with any place apart from Madhya Pradesh, the only way for him is the Railways.
Do you want to create more Naxals? I am surprised and happy that when the PM goes to Naxal-hit areas, he says there has to be connectivity. And the Railway minister is applauded because there is no new line! Aren’t you a confused lot?
But, the tracks were widened….
What we did in 65 years, China took just 15 years! Where did China get the money from? China is talking about a line that is under the Himalayas to connect with Nepal. The Railways gives you a strategic position also. God forbid, if there is a problem on the front, leave aside moving material, you will not be able to even move your men!
You talk about China and Japan as models….
In my last budget, I said my model is Japan. For the past 50 years, there has not been a single death in Shinkansen! Not even when earthquakes took place. Here, about 10-15 passengers die every day on Mumbai tracks. There is no value for life!
Why not China, which has much lower costs?
China has a cocktail — different expertise from different railways. Japan has a holistic system, and it could be much more expensive. I don’t have much knowledge of the Chinese system, but the safety record of China is not the best.
You know India’s fiscal situation. Where will investments come from?
So what? (Haven’t) you built Chandrayaan? You have not understood the strength of the Railways. It has been used as a political tool to please one party or the other. The mistake is that we want a direct earning from the Railways.
Take Swiss Railway. You can time your watch as per their system. Are they making money? No. But, if there was no railway, where will their tourism go? They take railway to their highest point. And, there are no accidents. Their railways may not be making money directly, but there are indirect benefits — movement of people, goods, tourism, everything.
On restructuring, administrative reforms… where do we start?
For restructuring, you have to ask why you want to do this. If you want to do it for efficiency, the Railway Board is very efficient. What is required is to make them work as a team, like in cricket. You may be member, electrical or mechanical, that does not mean you will not discuss matters.
We need a smart board that respects each other’s competence and has a common objective. They are doing this, but with a lot of difficulties.
Today, the chairman is one among equals. But he should be above them. And, the minister’s job is to give them direction.
That is why I talk about a national policy on railways. A minister comes and changes everything. The Railway Minister is more important than the Prime Minister of India.
There is talk about getting professionals from outside or civil servants ….
What can outside experts do? Civil servants will kill the Railways. You have the example of Air India. I had similar views on health, too, which requires dedicated care. You cannot have an IAS in health today, sports tomorrow, and finance, the day after.
Health and railways are dedicated sectors. Both are similar in many ways – they are a public service — and both are difficult jobs. I’m not saying that IAS officers are not dedicated, but their span of interest is limited.
What about private investments in the Railways?
Which private enterprise will put money in a losing proposition? People do not understand railways investment and revenue models. Nowhere in the world do they put money in building infrastructure. Roads are different, they have tolls.
I had started the station building agency. Get Singapore or anybody and give them the real estate! Railway guys are great at operations, but can’t build stations.