Authoritarianism and the slow death of Indian Railways

Definiton non-answer – An answer which is not actually an answer, it does everything except answer the question actually asked. Understanding this art and you understand how Indian Politics and the Indian bureaucracy works.

I was reading an article about nations and most of all my own country is getting into a well of authoritarianism and a cycle of fear and non-answers being generated by the present dispensation.

While I believe myself to be partly at fault for being self-censoring, I would try to share some of the issues which have been lying dormant in myself for quite some time.

To start with, there were couple of questions asked by my economic professor when I was studying Economics almost 20 years back.

The first question he asked was –

1. Why do people like status-quo so much ?

Some of the answers which were answered by the professor were –

a. People are happy with the way things are –

b. People do not know how the change will affect them.
The fear of how the change will affect them is unknown
and like magicians only one part/feature is known and
perceived while the other part is hidden.

It took me quite a few years of life, reading newspapers,
I understood what he meant by it.

c. Special Interests who survive and thrive due to the
way the status-quo is or as later I understood ‘Follow the
money’ .

I am going to use Indian Railways to explore the ‘Follow the money model’ way as I have loved Indian Railways since my childhood and it is also pertinent to majority of Indians who have the only means of cheap transport to go from A to B.

Indian Railways logo

A bit of history

Before we get to the present condition, a bit of historical reminiscing is important. Now the Indian Railways has been like the son which was never wanted since it’s birth. The British made lot of investment when they were ruling for their own benefit, most of which is still standing today details the kind of materials that were used. Independence and Partition were two gifts which the English gave us when they left which lead to millions of souls killed on either side. I wouldn’t go much into it as Khushwant Singh’s ‘Train to Pakistan‘ . It is probably one of the most hard books I have read as there are just too many threads to grasp and one is just unable to grasp the horror that Partition wrought to the Indian subcontinent.

The reason I am sharing about Partition because trains were the only means for lot of people to cover huge distances in those times. After Partition, when Pandit Nehruji became the P.M. the constitution he along with many leaders with Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (who is known as the Architect of the Constitution of India) wanted to have a secular, socialist India which would be self-sufficent in nature. The experiment which was also tried later by her daughter Mrs. Gandhi and later his grandson Mr. Rajiv Gandhi. All of the Prime Ministers did lot of investment in whatever they thought was best for the country except for Indian Railways. Especially from 1980’s onwards there was a dramatic shift (downwards) in creation of public infrastructure, especially the Railways even though the Governments knew we would be a young country in the coming years.

The 90’s

Before India’s Independence , India was a collection of several princely states consisting of today’s India, Pakistan, parts of Burma, Nepal so when the British came with the Rails, it was an innovation. During the period as the spread of Railways grow, three different railway systems were spawned on the gauge width, the Narrow Gauge, Standard Gauge and the (Indian) broad gauge. Wikipedia has a nice article about the different gauge networks so would leave it to them.

In the 90’s apart one of the dramatic change was from socialism to capitalism (as a policy initiative) and limited entry to foreign capital in specific sectors, one of the good intentions was the Project Uniguage for Indian Railways which was supposed to be finished by the end of the century has still not been done till date.

The other thing which was supposed to also happen is the impetus on Electrification of Indian Railways which is still far from over. There is lobbying from the diesel lobby at least in the locomotive space. As almost all the locomotive designs have been bought from various foreign vendors and then Indianized, they do not want their interests to be diluted.

Present situation

The present situation is that Indian Railways is in dire straits. While Indian Railways had an operating ratio of 94.9 percent

See the image of an Average Indian Household spend on various services –

Average Indian Household spend per month - Copyright Times of India.

– Copyright – Times of India.

As can be seen the biggest expenses are travel and eating out. In most developed economies, the share of travel expenses is not more than 4% of a typical household budget, but as can be seen for Indians the proportions are much more higher.

The Indian Railways has been the worst performer as far as on-time performance is concerned, at least since the present dispensation has taken over.

So who gains, if trains run late, the private buses and Air Services. The private bus transport have known to raise prices every year, especially whenever holidays or festivals happen. The same is the case with Airfares as well and is common occurrence and doesn’t register any shock anymore. There is a proposal to give fair compensation in cases of issues of flight delay and flight cancellation somewhat like what is available in European sectors but most operators say it will inevitably lead to higher fare prices across the board.

The airport infrastructure is also under severe strain while clocking increasing growth as people look to be at places at appointed times. The growth has been amazing while the on-time performance has been going in the opposite direction due to poor planning and mis-management. We need to have more CISF personnel and much wider airports (both land-side and air-side) to accommodate the increasing number of people traveling.

Just yesterday came across an interesting article on civil aviation which brings out all what I wanted to share and more.

Indian railways meanwhile seems to be running out of options as even though infrastructure is being increased, it’s not just fast enough with not enough talent which is going to cost us both in the short and medium-term 😦

I could share quite a lot of operational and policy issues but that might be boring for people who are not rail-fanners. I’ll just end with the simplest station that if you look at the work of at least the last couple of decades of Indian Railway Ministers, most Railway Ministers would present budgets where the emphasis was more on getting new railway services and something like 3-4% budget increase in creation of infrastructure which many a time will be lying unused without proper explanations or a non-answer.

Somewhat Good news

The only bright spot seem to the Dedicated Freight corridors which hopefully should increase Railways freight earnings and give more space for maintenance to happen on Indian Railways. The freight share of Indian Railways which used to be 90% has now shrunk to less than 18% due to number of reasons, among them opening up the freight sector from railways to roads, putting freight on passing loops and making freight a second-class citizen on railways, although roads have their own issues. A Livemint report couple of years back also shed some light on the situation.

On passenger front, only metro railways have some sort of good news but not enough. I am just hanging on hope as until we don’t value-add and move up in the value-chain on exports don’t really see India doing well.

There are a lot of challenges as well as opportunities for whichever Government comes next, have been thoroughly disappointed with the performance of the present Government in everything, including International Trade which was supposed to be unlocked by the Present PM.

Reviewing Agent 6

The city I come from, Pune has been experiencing somewhat of a heat-wave. So I have been cutting off lot of work and getting lot of back-dated reading done. One of the first books I read was Tom Rob Smith’s Agent 6 . Fortunately , I read only the third book and not the first two which from the synopsis seem to be more gruesome than the one which I read, so guess there is something to be thankful for.

Agent 6 copyright - Tom Rob Smith & Publishers

While I was reading about the book, I had thought that MGB is a fictious organization thought of by the author. But a quick look in wikipedia told that it is what KGB was later based upon.

I found the book to be both an easy read as well as a layered book. I was lucky to get a big print version of the book so I was able to share the experience with my mother as well. The book is somewhat hefty as it tops out around 600 pages although it’s told to be 480 pages on amazon.

As I had shared previously I had read Russka and how had been disappointed to see how the Russian public were disappointed time and again for democracy. I do understand that the book (Russka) itself is/was written by a western author and could have tapped into some unconscious biases but seemed to be accurate as to whatever I could find from public resources, that story though I may return to in a future date but this time would be for Agent 6 .

I found the book pretty immersive and at the same time lead me thinking on so many threads the author touches but then moves on. I was left wondering and many times just had to sleep, think deep thoughts as there was quite to chew on.

I am not going to spoil any surprises except to say there are quite a few twists and the ending is also what I didn’t expect.

At the end, if you appreciate politics, history, bit of adventure and have a bit of patience, the book is bound to reward you. It is not meant to be a page-turner but if you are one who enjoys savoring your drink you are going to enjoy it thoroughly.

A random collection of thoughts

First of all couple of weeks back, I was able to put out an article about riot-web. It’s been on my mind for almost a month or more hence finally sat down, wrote and re-wrote it a few times to make it simpler for newbies to also know.

One thing I did miss out to share was the Debian matrix page . The other thing which was needling me was the comment . This is not the first time I have heard that complaint about riot-web before and at times had it happen before.

The thing is its always an issue for me when to write about something, how to say something is mature or not as software in general has a tendency to fail at any given point of time.

For such queries I haven’t the foggiest idea as to what to share as the only debug mode is if you have built riot from source and run the -debug tests but can’t say that to a newbie.

One of the things which I didn’t mention is if any researchers tried to get data out of riot-web because AFAIK twitter banned lot of researchers who were trying to get data out of their platform to do analytics etc.

This I sort of remembered as I read an open letter couple of days before by researchers about independent oversight over facebook as a concern as well.

It would have been interesting if there were any new interesting studies made from riot-web implementation, something similar to how a study of IRC I read some years ago. The mathematical observations were above my head but still some of the observations were interesting to say the least.

There has been another pattern I have been seeing in the newer decentralized free software services. While in theory, the reference implementation is supposed to be one of many, many a times, it can become the defacto implementation or otherwise you have the irc way where each client just willy-nilly did features but still somehow managed to stay sane and interoperate over the years but that’s a different story altogether for a different day.

While I like the latter, it is and can be hard as migration ia a huge headache from one client to the other irrespective of whatever the content is. There is and could be data-loss or even meta-data loss and you may come to know only years later (if you are ‘lucky’ what info. it is that you lost.)

The easiest example is contacts migration. Most professionals have at least a hundred or two contacts, now if few go missing during migration from either one version to the other or from one platform to the other, they either don’t have the time or the skills to figure out why part-migration succeeded and the rest didn’t. Of course there is a whole industry of migration experts who can write code which would have all the hooks to see that the migration works smoothly or point out what was not migrated.

These services are wholly commercial in nature and also one cannot know in advance how good/bad the service is as usually issues come to bite much later.

On another note altogether, had been seeing the sort of java confusion from a distance. There’s a Mars Sims project I have been following for quite sometime, made a few bug-reports and for reasons unknown, was eventually made a contributor. They are also in a flux as to what to do. I had read the lists.debian.org/debian-java off-and-on the web and was glad to point out the correct links.

I had read the rumors sometime back that Oracle was bull-charging Java so that it would be the only provider in town and almost everybody would have to come to it for support rather than any other provider. I can’t prove it one way or the other as it’s just a rumor but does seem to have sense.

At the end, I remember a comment made by a DD Praveen at a minidebconf which happened a month ago. It was about how Upstreams are somewhat discouraging to Debian practices and specifically more about Debian Policy . This has been discussed somewhat threadbare in the thread What can Debian do to provide complex applications to its users? in Debian-devel. The short history I know is about minified javascript does and can have security issues, see this comment in the same thread as well as see the related point shared in Debian Policy. Even Praveen’s reply is pretty illuminating in the thread.

As a user I recommend Debian to my friends, clients because of the stability as well as security tracker but with upstreams in a sort of non-cooperative mood it just adds that much more responsibility to DD’s than before.

The non-cooperation can also be seen in something like PR, for instance like the one which was done by andrewshadura and that is somewhat sad 😦