Unions’ should not Derail the Process of Rail Reforms; Let the Government take Historic Decision atleast Now!

It will be the first “reform-oriented” government assumed charge at the Centre, and Suresh Prabhu will be the first Railway Minister with a reputation for reforms in backdrop of the deliberations of yet another ‘High Powered Committee’ headed by Bibek Debroy that is after that seemingly endless quest: “How to ‘reform’ the Indian Railways?”

There is no bigger controversial and emotionally charged subject associated with reforms in the Railways than the ‘P’ word. The arguments at both ends of the spectrum are often ideologically driven, dogmatic and ill-informed. The sheer number of reports and policy prescriptions that have emerged over the last few decades as to what ails the Indian Railways and what needs to be done to set things right should make one wonder why nothing substantial is being done to change things if the remedies are so obvious for the last more than two decades. And, the so called ‘policy-makers’ so easily allowed Railways to ruin by itself day by day, with no remedy or corrective action taken.  What does it speaks about?  Clearly the problems lies with the decision makers of previous governments. However the so called key influential groups i.e. Trade Unions also ensured that their job is to oppose any reforms in the Railways and raise heavy slogans, but when it comes to corrective steps for healthy Railway system, these Unions were silent.  Why?

Last week, NFIR reportedly wrote letters to Railway Minister stating that they oppose nomination of Consultants like “Ernst and Young, KPMG, Deloitte and PWCs” and asked the Minister to see that the precipitated steps for Railway reforms are contained and, are not resorted to, expressing fear that such actions would harm the Railways and disturb the industrial relations.

It is highly surprising to see the letter signed by Marri Raghavaiah as to how seeking expert reports from seasoned International Consultant entities like Ernst and Young, KPMG, Deloitte and PWCs for evaluation of the process of “reforms” in an organisational behemoth like Indian Railways would hamper industrial relations and harm Railways.  He even went and declared “Rail Bachao Andolan” on 25th June, and asked his affiliates to hold protests, demonstrations, mass rallies, gate meetings etc., at different places, at all levels, strongly protesting against the recommendations of Bibek Debroy Committee.

If it is the stand of a responsible GS of a reputed Trade Union, then what is his alternative suggestion to put derailed Indian Railways back on track?  Why was he silent all those years when Indian Railways was successfully ruined by the earlier governments and importantly the earlier Rail Ministers? Where was he at the time when the finances of Indian Railways were diminishing and why he has not asked the past Railway Ministers to streamline their acts that hamper the financial, operational and technical strength of Railway system in India? Obviously he cannot answer this question.

There have never been any contrasting views about the fact that the Indian Railways badly needed a face-lift. Governments have come and gone, committees formed and their reports were reviewed and were conveniently put in trash, but the railways never changed for decades.  Filthy platforms, manual scavengers at work, trains running hours behind schedule and inability to catch up with the safety standards, unable to catch up with the evolving Rail Technologies, unable to utilise the services of Technical arms like ISRO, IIMs and IITs in gradual benchmarking of standards and implement new and innovative technologies etc are some of the trademarks that our Railways have earned till now, over the decades. And yet, the so called intellectuals from Trade Unions conveniently remained silent.  Have you slept with your eyes open?  If so, why?  Were you not a responsible Railwaymen to correct the things happening right in front of your eyes all these years? No he does not have any answer to say…

Indian Railways constitute one of the largest and most wide spread Railway systems in the world under single management.  The track route kms is nearly 6 times bigger than that of earth’s equitorial diameter.

The latest in the series of committees formed to recommend measures for railways’ reforms is the Bibek Debroy committee, whose recommendations came out recently. One of the reasons why it didn’t catch much limelight was that most of its recommendations were a repeat of suggestions put forward by many earlier committees. The major ones among them were increasing the role of private players in Railways, formation of an independent regulator ‘Railway Regulatory Authority of India’ to decide on tariffs, activities like running railway schools and hospitals to be given into private hands, re-shuffling of the higher railway cadre and amalgamating the Railway budget with the General Union Budget itself. As expected, the recommendations brought out contrasting reactions and interpretations from different sections. While the railway labour unions are worried about the intrusion of private players, the officers are worried about the proposed ‘re-shuffling’.

As the Debroy committee report came out, many television debates interpreted it as favouring privatization of Railways, which is actually not the case. The report clearly states that the private players should be allowed to implement private railway projects and handle the add-on responsibilities of railways such as its schools, real estates and hospitals, so that the Railways can concentrate on its core duty at hand, i.e. running rails. Since the entire infrastructure is handled and maintained by the Railways, the terms and conditions of running private rails would need to be negotiated holistically. But these negotiations mustn’t scare away the Government from taking a step in this direction. With the socialist economic model dying its natural death, an increased role of private players is doing wonders across the world. Even in India, telecom and aviation are two prime examples of how private players can revolutionize the sector and bring world class services within the reach of the masses. Privatization brings with itself some much needed characteristics of a successful business, viz. competition, quality, and improving access.

Going by the existing and enhancing bonhomie between the present BJP Government and many industrial barons in the country, it may not be long before the private players are given a taste of railways. And this is where the danger lies, as is observed by the Trade Unions.  Monopoly and crony capitalism are two of the most dreaded aspects of privatization. While the private players must be welcomed into the ring, the Bibek Debroy Committe also suggested that the Government must formulate a strict Regulator for Railways, which is a welcome suggestion.

Also, there is a need to look at alternatives to railways. It goes without saying that road network is crying for an improvement. In addition, India is blessed to have many rivers. But, regrettably we have never realized the true potential of water bodies. Cargo transportation through waterways is highly underutilized in India. The cargo transported by Inland waterway in India is a paltry 0.1% of the net inland traffic. The same number stands at 21% for the USA! China’s navigable inland waterways stand at 125,000 Kilo Meters against India’s 14,500 KM! The underutilization of waterways has put further stress on the already weak railways infrastructure, thereby reducing its efficiency. Last month, the Government introduced the National Waterways Bill in the Lok Sabha to add on 101 new national waterways in the country. With no hurry visible from either side, the bill can’t be expected to turn into a reality very soon, which implies that for now, railways has nowhere else to look for support!

Indian Railways presents an intriguing case study. It is a business where customers line up months in advance, hence the demand is over the roof all year long! But the provider refuses to provide quality services even when the customer is ready to pay the price! It would be incorrect to take railways as a purely commercial entity since it has many social obligations. But at the end of the day, it must at least provide what it is meant for – meet the demands in a safe and comfortable way. There have been atleast two derailments on an average per week on Indian Railways.  What does that speak?  It is due to non-strengthening of the track, earth works, alignment works, signal and telecom system and last but not the least, the antiquated track systems. If the Railways are indeed to be given an overhaul, private sector participation is inevitable. Significant reforms also need a modicum of consensus among all stake holders including the political establishment and cannot be rammed down from above through executive fiats and diktats. It is now up to the Government to decide if it has enough guts to withstand opposing views and implement the recommendations of the Bibek Debroy committee or to opt for the tried and tested path and say, ‘Let it be, let the next Government take the plunge’!