SURESH PRABHU IS EXECUTING SOME OF THE TOUGHEST REFORMS IN THE HISTORY OF INDIAN RAILWAYS AND HIS EXIT WILL ONLY DERAIL THE ENTIRE PROCESS.
It is not easy for any Railways Minister to think of reforms and execute. these in the overall functioning of India’s biggest employer in the organised sector. A plethora woes have been plaguing Indian Railways for long and most of the ministers—from Nitish Kumar to Ramvilas Paswan to Lalu Prasad Yadav to Mamata Banerjee to Dinesh Chaturvedi—could dare to take on the cartels, covertly controlling Indian Railways for decades from behind the curtains through their ‘representatives’ and bring in reforms. They were just lost in artificial juggling of statistics and revenue cobweb, weaved intelligently by the bureaucrats and leaving the Indian Railways at the mercy of God. Train mishaps in India are much higher than China, which is among the countries known for their superb train services with zero percentage of consequential accidents. The hope for better days was raised when Suresh Prabhu as Railways Minister embarked upon a series of reforms aimed at improving the functioning of the Railways. One of his priorities among many others was and still remains to break the spine of unholy nexus between private sector players and their ‘mentors’ within the ministry, which can be done only through reforms.
For many critical ailments of the Indian Railways, the Railway Board and its members are responsible, which work as a holy cow within the ministry. The Railway Board chairman is perceived to be more powerful than the Railway Minister and even the Minister has to fall in line if the Railway Board chairman feels so, but the fact is entirely different. The Board chairman does not have veto power and is one among equals and has no check on the ‘acts of permutation and combination’ of other members of the Board. Given his political integrity and determination to let things happen in a transparent manner, Prabhu took little time in identifying key areas of concerns in the ministry and started working accordingly. The restructuring of Railway Board was never ever a priority of any government other than then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to introduce member, electrical, in the Board to take up and expedite the job of electrification. Prabhu, on his part, focussed on upgrading and expanding infrastructure, financial consolidation and improving the ‘sagging’ image of Indian Railways.
Against all odds, Prabhu has left nothing unturned in improving the ease of travelling in trains, while accelerating the work on Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC), which is going to completed by 2019. Since every Board member has his fiefdom within the ministry, Prabhu chose to break their hegemony so that the works of Railways do not suffer. He introduced cross-functional directorates and reworked the areas of responsibilities for different members and made their role much more relevant. He also delegated financial power to the Divisional Railway Managers (DRMs) and added more teeth to the post of Railway Board chairman.
It is true that in the recent month, Prabhu has drawn more brickbats than bouquets, largely on account of adverse observations in the annual report of Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) and a couple of train mishaps in the past fortnight. Peeved over the mishap first in Khautali and then in Auraiya in Uttar Pradesh, Prabhu even offered to quit but the Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked him to wait not because he has just special liking for Prabhu but because of the fact that realities positively tilt in favour of the Railways Minister and criticism against him is based on myths. Over the years, Indian Railways has lost the sheen of its vital like anything and the repercussions of which continue to haunt us. So long as fundamentals are not improved, things will never change for the betterment.
No one can give any justification to a mishap, which must be checked at any cost. Safety of rail passengers has always been a major concern at the magnificent Rail Bhawan in New Delhi. As a result of which there is a steady decline in train mishaps in the country, a reality which is being deliberately kept out of the purview of public domain and the myth that the number of railways accidents and fatalities has increased under the leadership of Prabhu is being served to the countrymen. The reality paints a different but positive picture, which Prabhu’s critics will not like to digest. The consequential train accidents have continuously declined from 135 in 2014-15 to 107 in 2015-16 and further to 104 in 2016-17. The average annual accidents during UPA-I was 207 per year, while during UPA-II 135 per year. The average of consequential accidents during the current NDA government has reduced to 115 per year. Every human life is priceless and any loss of human life irreparable. The number of casualties has also seen a declining trend during the current regime. Total fatalities in first three years of UPA-I were 759, which went up to 938 during UPA-II. The first three years of the current Central government has seen the number declining to 652.
It is worth mentioning here that high speed train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad is being funded by the Government of Japan, with less than 20 per cent contribution from the Government of India. This money, which came at incredibly attractive terms with 0.1 per cent rate of interest, was made available only for this high-speed project and was not available to fund safety projects for Indian Railways. Moreover, high speed train is the safest mode of transport in the world. Hence, the Central government has not diverted any funds from existing corpus.
It is, therefore, unfounded to say that the Railways Ministry has lost its focus on safety. The fact is that safety remains one of the prime concerns and priorities for the Ministry. When the BJP led NDA government took over, analysis revealed that 40 per cent of the accidents and 60 per cent of fatalities were due to accidents on unmanned level crossings. Hence, the Mission Zero Accident was launched to ensure that all unmanned level crossings (UMLCs) were eliminated by 2019. It has seen an unprecedented success, where the ministry eliminated 4258 UMLCs in the last three years, leading to drop in fatalities from UMLC accidents from 64 per cent of total fatalities in 2013-14 to 16.81 per cent in 2016-17.
The state of infrastructure is an important constituent to safety performance. The infrastructure had been deteriorating due to years of neglect, which requires huge investments. Investment in safety has increased from Rs 33,972 crore per year during UPA-II to Rs 54,031 crore every year under this government, a jump of 60 per cent. Similarly, congestion on tracks also has some impact on safety. Reduction in congestion is achieved by infrastructure upgradation which again requires huge capital expenditure. Under this government, by the end of year, the ministry would be spending about Rs 4 lakh crore on infrastructure creation. In the last 67 years since independence (1947- 2014) capital investment of Rs 4.9 lakh crore was made on Indian Railways.
In 2017-18 Budget, a fund namely ‘Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh’ (RRSK) has been created for financing critical safety related works. RRSK has been created with a corpus of Rs 1 lakh crore over a period of five years. The decision to stop production of ICF coaches, the mainstay of Indian Raiwlays passenger business for many years, and having no anti-climbing feature, was taken in 2015-16. Since existing stock of 40,000 ICF coaches, almost 90 per cent of total coaches, cannot be discarded, efforts are on to retrofit ICF coacshes with CBC couplers to make them safer. New technologies like condition based monitoring system for rolling stock and track and ultrasonic broken rail detection system are being piloted on the network.
Average vacancy in safety positions during 2009-10 to 2013-14 was 18.65 per cent of total sanctioned strength. This dropped to 16.86 per cent in 2017 despite the sanctioned strength increasing by 5 per cent from 2014 to 2017. Further, during the current government the ministry has recruited almost 37,510 people in the safety categories taking the total staff strength to 6,35,940 as on April 1, 2017. Massive recruitments of almost 2,00,000 staff in these categories are also lined up. Similarly, the High Level Safety Review Committee had made 106 recommendations on various aspects of railway’s working. Out of 106, as many as 68 recommendations have been fully accepted out of which 52 have been fully implemented and 16 are under implementation. As many as 19 recommendations were partially accepted out of which 13 have been implemented.
Needless to say that Indian Railways has unflinching commitment to the poor and the downtrodden. Passenger fares are still amongst the lowest in the entire world. In fact, Indian Railways subsidises passenger and suburban travel to the tune of almost Rs 36,000 crore annually. Antyodaya Express, fully unreserved, super-fast trains with enhanced amenities such as drinking water, vestibule trains and LHB coaches, were launched only to cater to unreserved segment. Indian Railways ensures the availability of Janta Meals at all major stations. Indian Railways, thus, remains the most inclusive economic pursuit, where the best possible services are being provided to the people with continuous upgradation of safety norms and other measures so that the ease of travelling in trains is never compromised.
(Writer is Director, Centre for Economic Policy Research, Chandigarh. Views are his personal)