Legacy and social commitment have been bleeding the Indian Railways for a long time.
Pursuing its social commitment, hospitals, nursing homes and sports stadiums have or are proposed to be built in places where they are a huge drain on financial resources. Thousands of kilometers of un-remunerative lines have been announced and thousands of persons that the public transporter doesn’t need are recruited.
In the name of legacy, wards of employees get easy access to jobs as a virtual inheritance. Palatial and fully furnished bungalows are allotted on a life-long basis to union leaders. Hundreds of free passes are doled out to different categories of people and hundreds are accommodated in different committees.
Cost of social service
“As revenues earned from freight continue to cross-subsidise passenger fares, losses in the passenger segment have escalated. Social burden costs are estimated to touch Rs 30,000 crore this fiscal,” said former railways financial commissioner AV Paulose. More than 300 projects costing about 1.5 lakh crore are pending. The operating ratio — paisa earned against every rupee spent — has continued to hover around 95% in the past five years.
“Rail finances are crumbling. The railways in the recent past have had to approach the finance ministry for additional funds to balance its budget. India’s rail network has increased by just about 10,000 km in the 66 years since Independence but 2,500 trains have been rained down the clogged networks. From railway ministers downwards, everybody seems interested in winning friends and influencing people,” said former railway board member RC Acharya.
Railways expert Raghu Dayal goes a step further: “The railways have lost 70% of freight share to the road transport sector in the past 66 years. The steel and petroleum ministries have bigger budgetary outlays while some private companies have a higher turnover compared to the railways. There is just no justification for the railways to have a separate budget.”
Living in the past
The British colonisers built residential complexes and golf courses to create facilities in remote areas for its engineers and managers. “Construction and maintenance of colonies can very easily be outsourced now. Coaches and equipment can also be sourced from the open market. Providing for catering services does not form part of the core activities of the public transporter but it has continued to engage in it. The railways also don’t need a host of activities in passenger, parcel or freight services. Somehow, the railways have been unable to bring about a mindset change and continue to function in a time warp,” said Krishan Lal Thapar of the Asian Institute of Transport.
A senior railway official, however, said the organisation is trying to adapt to the changing times: “Measures are being attempted to integrate the railways culture with market realities. Activities such as track laying and rolling stock maintenance are being outsourced. Policy changes such as plans to set up the Rail Traffic Regulatory Authority have been initiated.”
Too many panels
At 69 divisions and 17 zones, 20-member Railways User’s Consultative Committees comprising public representative are in existence.
At the railway board level, such individuals are accommodated as members in various committees including the Passenger Services Committee, Passenger Amenities Committee, Hindi Advisory Committee or the Heritage Committee.
“Members of these committees are mostly furthering their own agendas and lobbying for introduction of more trains. Committee members are very strident. Such populist attitudes don’t help,” an official said.