A little help in the form of a rebate in freight tariff will go a long way for railways to get a major share from the food grains transport pie. It must look beyond coal
As in the US, China, and Russia, a large chunk of earnings for the Indian Railways comes from coal which is close to 41 per cent. It carries more than one billion tonnes of freight annually. New lines costing around Rs7,500 crore for evacuation of coal from Tori-Shivpur-Kathautia area in north Karanpura, Jharkhand, Jharsuguda-Barpali-Sardegna in IB Valley, Odisha and Bhupdeopur-Raigarh-Mand area in Chhattisgarh, will result in nearly 100 million tonnes of incremental coal traffic to railways.
However, given the difficult terrain and law and order problem in our country, it may take around three years to five years for this to materialise. Therefore, it is time for railways to look beyond coal to boost its earnings. After coal, food grains constitute the next big chunk (11 per cent), followed by cement (nine per cent), iron ores (six per cent), mineral oils (four per cent) and others including, fertilisers, containers etc (29 per cent).
Amongst all these, food grains offers the highest potential to achieve economy in costs when transported by rail, though, of the 225 million tonnes of food grains produced annually, railways ends up carrying only about half of it! Handled manually in bags since ages, the time is ripe to improve productivity through mechanisation, which will enable shippers reduce labour costs and inherent wastages in bagging and storing a commodity such as food grains.
Fortunately, the template of a hopper wagon to transport food grains already exists in the form of Business Technical Assistance Program (BTAP), which is a bottom discharge wagon developed more than a couple of decades ago by the Research Design and Standards Organisation, Lucknow, the R&D arm of the Railways
Meant to handle alumina, which is a granular commodity, BTAP helped the National Aluminium Company transport alumina from Damanjodi to Vizag as well as to Meramondoli for its smelters near Angul on the East Coast Railway. Over 600 wagons are still in service with each rake carrying 3,850-tonne payload. A fluidised bed at the bottom of the wagon with air at less than kg/sq cm helps discharge 55 tonnes from each wagon in less than an hour.
With minor modfications, such wagons were also procured by the Associated Cement Company, to send cement in bulk from its plant in Wadi to the silos at Kalamboli, to supply cement to major infrastructure projects in Mumbai. This resulted in considerable savings in handling costs at both the ends. Reportedly, Karthikeya Industries in Coimbatore is planning to build food grain silos at Sahnewal in Punjab, Changsari in Assam and Narela in Delhi. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) too may construct a silo at Kotkapura in Punjab while Adani Agri Logistics is considering to build one at Katihar in Bihar.
While such bulk storage, at both loading and unloading points, can eliminate bagging and connected handling cost from farms to the bulk users, ultimately retail sales, through ration shops or other means, may still need bagging — though for a much smaller quantity. Perhaps time is opportune for a railways team of experts to sit with some of the stakeholders in public sector as well as the private sector to work out the details for the transport of food grains from the farms to the mandi, to railway siding and ultimate delivery at unloading points without bagging it.
Facilities at the mandis may also need to be upgraded by the FCI and State agencies, equipping them with electronic weighing machines, for moisture mapping etc, to ensure down payment at Minimum Support Price (MSP) rates at the time of purchase. An estimated saving of upto 20 per cent of MSP in handling costs alone by elimination of hidden losses due to damage and deterioration in present manual handling and storage in centralised godowns is likely to be made, while a stainless steel wagon body will ensure optimum levels of hygiene.
A price tag of Rs.25 Lakhs for a hopper wagon will involve an investment of Rs.1,125 cores for each 45-wagon rake. However, a number of wagon leasing companies and even wagon manufacturers such as Texmaco of West Bengal have set up shops in India which can lease out such rolling stock if neither the shipper or the railways is keen to invest in them. Undoubtedly a little help in the form of a rebate in freight tariff will go a long way for railways to get a major share from the food grains transport pie, which is only going to grow bigger.