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.

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