The Indian Railways is the single largest commercial governmental organisation of the world. However, a perennial problem that has plagued this gargantuan organisation is that of a consistent record of ghastly accidents. The scenario has now become so customary that a predictable pattern of such accidents transpires within a periodic gap of a few months. The Railway is an indispensable service to the nation; a cornerstone of national integration schemes, and backbone to the Indian economy. To see the establishment in such a dismal state of affairs is disheartening, but sitting back and hoping for miracles is not an option either. A series of accidents have stirred the common man into a general sense of insecurity. In 2018, four accidents were recorded, with the death toll at seventy-four. 2017 recorded eight disasters, putting the total death toll at sixty-seven. 2016 was witness to seven mishaps, totalling a hundred and fifty deaths. From the onset of the decade, an approximate of forty-five percent of the tragedies involved derailment of the coaches from the tracks.
Leaving aside such accidents, the trend of railway-related crimes have refused to subside over the years, and have rather craned upwards in statistical linguistics. A total of 23,474, 26,620 and 31,609 IPC crimes were reported by GRPs during 2012, 2013 and 2014 respectively at the national level reflecting an increase of 13.4% in 2013 over 2012 and an increase of 18.7% in 2014 over 2013. In 2014, two hundred and sixty people were booked under the Indian Railways Act of 1989. Seventy-five cases of dacoity were reported, and theft constituted 96.1% of the property-related crimes in the same year. These figures are alarming and call for immediate attention. When we look forward to analysing the problems faced by the Railways, we need to have a multifarious approach to finding out the probable solutions. We must not look only at the mechanical faults that result in catastrophic disasters but also at the criminal records. Ensuring passenger safety, in the truest sense of the term, is a vital component of any organisation. The Railways cannot be exempted from such a responsibility because of the fact that it is a State-owned concern. Each of the fault lines and glaring red lights is interlinked with the other.
The primary reason for all such mechanical accidents is inadequate maintenance. Over the past years, the number of trains deployed for all purposes has increased on a logarithmic scale, while the number of coaches has remained more or less constant. In a nutshell, the number of coaches added is disproportionately small to the number of trains introduced during the same period. The ramifications are predictably visible in the present future. Hence, due to the tremendous pressure and a tight schedule for maintenance of these coaches, they are overworked and often not looked after well enough. How can the common man expect decent service (which includes cleanliness, hygiene, proper functioning of all features in the rakes, et cetera) when a single train is running for multiple destinations during a diminutive span of twenty-four hours?
This increase in strain can directly be attributed to populist policies by governmental ministers. It is high time that we become aware that the Indian Railways is no longer a suitable sandbox to experiment with, and any further stress in the form of unwarranted populism can drive it to a breaking point. The Railways was on the verge of bankruptcy under Mamata Banerjee’s tenure at the helm of the Ministry of Railway. Pseudo-egalitarian blueprints have made the organisation incur losses at an unprecedented scale. In the financial year 2016-17, the Railways looked at an operating loss of Rs. 33,000 crores (or, $4.74b in USD). Such populist measures translate into rising expenditures and falling revenues. The recent proposals to introduce bullet trains into the foray is absolutely unnecessary. It is important to resuscitate from the financial blows dealt in the past years and only then look to expand into uncharted horizons. Harbouring high ambitions is good, but implementing them at a time there exists a financial crunch for the Railways is in all ways foolish.
The Railways being the most popular means of public transport in India shoulders a huge social responsibility. The pangs of populism are inaccurately justified by this very excuse. Fare hikes are very rare and are met with political brouhaha whenever such steps are initiated. Opposition to such price reforms is condemnable. Although it is essential that the downtrodden be safeguarded with measures like subsidised rates, Indian Railways cannot compromise its very existence by not permitting the hikes. Back in 2014, the newly incumbent Minister of Railways Suresh Prabhu had vowed to breathe new life into the Railways, and he raised the fares by a good 14.6%. Despite all antagonism to such hikes, it was eventually cleared. Three years from hence, we are yet to witness a satisfactory denouement.
There have been suggestions from some corners to metamorphose the Railway model from a State-owned corporation to a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model of commerce. However, the Railways being such a vast organisation expanding into dominions of a thousand intricate complexities, it is difficult to entrust such a radical change of operation within a few years. No one is willing to take the risk, and it may have worked out if it was implemented in the early days. But nowadays, there hardly seems a scope for such private engagement (apart from temporary contractual work): No private concern on its own has the necessary capital to bail out the Indian Railways from the jaws of financial trouble. Thus, it is safe to assume that such a proposal may be altogether rubbished in the near future.
Despite employing more than a million employees, inefficiency and irresponsible behaviour on part of the workforce have proved to be a major drawback for the Indian Railways. Speaking with Railway officials, Politics Now could clearly sense that the usual peskiness of employee unions have pervaded deep into the work culture. Most of the staff members are indolent and look for job benefits, seeking comfort in the permanence of government jobs. There thus exists a shortage of effective personnel to rely on. In many situations, the staffing department does not allot the sufficient number of GRP personnel in trains that have a lower priority. This non-allocation of security staff on trains are a direct consequence of the aforementioned problem of staff shortage. Therefore, it is pertinent that ineffective personnel be discarded and fresh brains replace the positions to provide a dynamic outlook to the organisation at the lower levels.
The Bibek Debroy Committee was appointed in 2015 to review the concerns induced earlier and to suggest ways for the Railways to revitalise itself. It made several recommendations, which can broadly be generalised into three foundational pillars: (i) a transition to commercial accounting, (ii) radical changes in the HR structure, and (iii) establishment of an independent regulator. The Committee was of the opine that if the Railways shunned its opaque accounting methodology and instead shifted onto globally-accepted accounting methods, it would further the cause of not only transparency, but also provide for a better assessment of policy interventions and cost of various services. It also proposed the streamlining of the recruiting process, especially ones at the top- merging eight Group A postings into two branches- one for Technical Services (IRTechS) and one for logistical decision-making (IRLogS). Lateral inflow of competent external talent, to up the operational efficiency to the highest levels possible, was also approved of. The Committee proposed a supervisory parent body, the Railways Regulatory Authority of India (RRAI)- which would be responsible for a wide range of changes: ensuring fair and open access to access charges, establishing tariffs as it deems fit, adjudicate disputes between concerned bodies as and when they may crop up, and the like.
On going through the detailed report presented by the Committee, it was clear that the principal purpose behind going after such structural changes was to make the Indian Railways fit to survive in the twenty-first century. It noted with lament the individualism that had been nurtured among employees, and proposed changes to end the unwanted sense of departmentalism that had hacked teamspirit from the lowest levels of the organisation. Furthermore, it suggested new methods of revenue-generation, including harnessing the potential of e-commerce (via IRCTC, its subsidiary arm- see more in my previous article, Digital India and Indian Railways), as also remunerative freight operations. However, three years hence, very few changes seem to have been incorporated into the system: accounts still stand manipulated, and personnel changes have had not much effect. Subpar employees cannot be penalized appropriately, as employee unions offer stiff resistance to such moves, and such sanctions only affect working relationships and develop friction between staff and the officers. To top it all, the Railways posted its least ever profits in the FY 2017-18, coming up with an operating ratio of 98.5%- which comprehensively means that the Railways spent 98.5 paisa for every rupee that it earned. The Committee expressed that while it endorsed liberalisation of the Railways, it did not find privatization of the Railways a pragmatically workable idea, as I had concurred earlier.
Regardless of all its flaws, the Government has flagged a green signal to a list of potentially reviving solutions. These include more investments, betting on the Go-Green campaigns, increasing freight operations, and earning back the customer’s trust in the Railways. These are heartening signs of revival amidst an ocean full of economic shipwrecks. The Railways, as I had appropriate pointed out in an article back in 2014, stands handicapped. Positive measures taken in the best interests of Railways by administrators have worked out, while the politically charged PR stunts have failed on a monumental scale. The bottom line is, populism must be wholly eradicated to reinstitute a green on the fiscal reports. Although it is a distant dream, it is possible. Albeit it would take a good number of years, perhaps even decades.
But, it is possible.