WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
Every Railway Budget has a way of stoking nostalgic memories of train journeys of my childhood. Those were the days, in the early 1940s, when there were no planes to take people anywhere. There were only military planes - bombers that dropped bombs and fighters that took on enemy fighter planes until one or the other perished - for that senseless, destructive game called war that took millions of lives without rhyme or reason. My childhood memories of trains are of steam engines that belched a great deal of smoke and covered us with soot and grime and sent coal dust into our eyes. But every whistle of the engine while taking off from stations or turning a bend would send us off to a magical fairytale world of adventure that always eluded us in the end. As I grew older, I started marvelling at the way the annual regiol budgets always showed a surplus, and deficit railway budgets were quite unheard of even during the first couple of decades after Independence. In later years, however, I began to see through the make-believe and farce of our railway budgets. Every year, the Railway Minister would launch a new train and announce the extension of railway links to some remote part of the country that did not have train services. It was difficult for anyone to keep track of how many of the promises were honoured and how many of them lapsed. What everyone must have noticed as I did was that the standards of service have remained the same and even the trains (barring the fact that they were hauled by diesel-electric engines instead of the old steam ones) and coaches remained the same without any changes over the decades. Unreserved Class III (not called Class III any more) train travel remained as overcrowded, uncomfortable and smelly as it was 30 or 40 years ago.
Comparing standards with the trains I have travelled in in other countries sadden me no end. Trains in most European countries and in Cada and the United States were ever so much better, faster and cleaner. They were also much more punctual than Indian trains. Besides, train accidents were far fewer in most other countries compared to the number of them that we have had in India lately. Our Railways seemed to exist solely for the purpose of carrying out the annual ritual of announcing new routes and new trains. What every Railway Minister refrained from mentioning was that his predecessor had left unfulfilled promises that had to be made up during his tenure.
The latest Railway Budget presented by Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu is refreshingly different from all earlier railway budgets. For one thing, he dispensed with the annual ritual of having to launch a new train and to announce the extension of railway connection to some out of the way part of the country that had no railway service at all. The latest Railway Budget has no new trains and no promises of extension of railway service to any particular area not on the railway map of the country. Instead, there are assurances to the people about how the railway services would be improved so that in about 10 years we shall have trains, stations, and amenities for passengers that we have never had and facilities that will take our railways much closer to the prevailing standards in advanced countries. Suresh Prabhu seems to have thrown populism out of the window in favour of a modicum of pragmatism in putting together a Rs 8.5-lakh crore, five-year plan to propel Indian Railways into futuristic standards. His railway budget holds promises of bullet trains that will travel at speeds of over 300 km an hour, immaculately clean stations and a range of creature comforts backed by technology to ease the pain of train travel in the country. Even without making any announcements on new trains and new lines he has raised his plan outlay for 2015-16 by 51 per cent to Rs 100,011 crore to help him grapple also with his burden of unfinished projects that earlier railway ministers had grandly announced but failed to implement. Prabhu’s annual plan has had to be supported by Rs 40,000 crore from the Centre—a 33.3 per cent increase over the Rs 30,100 crore last year. But even this enhanced aid from the Centre has left a gap in its finces that will have to be made up with market borrowings estimated at Rs 17,655 crore next year, a jump of 46.5 per cent over this year. Prabhu aims to raise another Rs 17,136 crore from the institutiol entities thereafter. In his 65- minute speech in Parliament while presenting the Railway Budget, Prabhu said, “Over the next five years, the railways have to undergo a transformation.”
Mercifully, there is no increase in railway passenger fares this year since fares had been raised by 14.2 per cent by the Modi government last July—the first fare tariff hike in about 10 years. Instead, Prabhu opted for a 10 per cent hike in the freight tariff in the lowest slab. And even though he claims that the impact of the 10 per cent hike would not be much, people are worried that the prices of food items and essential commodities like cement and steel will go up due to the hike in freight tariffs. There are two other related concerns apart from the rise in prices that a hike in freight tariffs might trigger off. The first of these is related to the massive borrowing that the railways would have to go in for in order to implement the reforms and the improvements to lift the entire system to make it comparable to railways in advanced countries. There is a certain amount of optimism that the projected economic growth rate for the fiscal year 2015-16, which has been put at above eight per cent, might be able to cover the borrowings needed for a complete revamp of the Indian Railways in terms of infrastructure, improved tracks for faster trains, better equipped railway stations and better security on moving trains not to speak of more efficient magement of reservations and on-line bookings of meals and bedrolls. The other is the fear that in hiking the freight tariffs the Indian Railways could well be forcing manufacturers to opt for road transport rather than railway transport. This would mean huge reductions in railway freight revenues.
The Railway Minister envisages the setting up of high-speed dedicated freight corridors that will ease the pressure on the existing railway network, allowing other passenger trains to travel faster also. The speed of trains on nine railway corridors is proposed to be increased from 110-130 kmph to anywhere between 160 kmph and 200 kmph. This translates to the travel time of 17 hours between Kolkata and Delhi (that is achieved at present by the Duronto Express) getting reduced to about to 12 hours. According to Prabhu, “In the next five years, our priority will be to significantly improve capacity on high-density networks.” This makes a great deal of sense because railway tracks between big metropolitan cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Cheni account for 70 per cent of India’s railway traffic. Along with the capacity building on the high-density networks, railway tracks are proposed to be upgraded to eble freight train speeds to be pushed up to 75 kmph for loaded trains and 100 kmph for empty trains while increasing the load that a freight train can carry.
All said and done, it is such permanent changes to the infrastructure and the quality of tracks that will eventually make for a far more efficient, speedy and modern railway system for the country. Such permanent improvements and the upgrading of passenger and freight handling mechanisms are what the system really needs. Over the years, this is precisely what has been grossly neglected in favour of the annual rituals of adding a new train and a few more kilometres of rail tracks to uncharted territories that had become the principal activities of the Indian Railways ostensibly to cater to the needs of the people but actually for more immediate political gains. One sincerely hopes that the new thrust towards making the entire system much more efficient and modern is the kind of development activity for the railways that we have long hoped for and been disappointed year after year. At least to that extent, a pragmatic approach to the modernization of our railways is far more preferable to meaningless annual rituals. Obviously, all serious and significant changes to the infrastructure of such a huge system are bound to be costly affairs. However, at a time when the tion is in need of long overdue overhauls such expenses become uvoidable. A tion that has tolerated massive waste of tiol resources for years on end, must find ways of cutting such waste to find the means for genuine development and radical changes to existing systems. We can very well begin with our railways—one of the most extensive transportation networks in the world.