Thursday, July 3, 2014

Railway Budget 2014 must reflect long-term roadmap




A man watches from the window of a train as it prepares to leave the railway platform in New Delhi on Friday. (AP Photo by Altaf Qadri)
A man watches from the window of a train as it prepares to leave the railway platform in New Delhi on Friday. (AP Photo by Altaf Qadri)
One of the world’s largest rail networks (11,500 km long) Indian Railways is probably the biggest transporter of people. According to a 2011 report, the Government enterprise carried 890 crore people annually, which means 2.4 crore people a day and a daily freight of 2.98 million tonnes. It is also the ninth largest commercial employer in the world with over 14 lakh employees. It is also true that in 2012-2013 alone, this enterprise reported losses of a whopping Rs 24,915 crore. Enormous in size and operations, Indian Railways is also the biggest job at hand for Government of India.
While services are extremely poor, what haunts people is the safety factor. A Zee report says that “according to a report by the railways published in 2012, nearly 14,376 people had died on the tracks in 2009, followed by 12,894 deaths in 2010 and 14,611 in the following year. And the railway board predicted that in the last three years about 50,000 people must have lost their lives”.
The Khanna Railway Safety Review Committee – 1998 reported that the Indian Railways have 34,000 overaged wagons, 1,322 overaged coaches, and 1,560 stations with overaged signalling. Moreover, 262 bridges are listed “distressed”. The white paper released by the Railways in April, 2003 acknowledges that over 51,000 bridges are of 119th century vintage. Out of a total of 1,27,154 bridges in India, 56,178 are more than 80 years old. Thus 44.17 per cent of the bridges have outlived their life. According to the review conducted by the Comptroller General of India on various aspects of bridge management between 1997-1998 to 2011-2012, these old bridges include 339 important, 4,210 major and 51,629 minor bridges built before 1920. The Khanna Committee had further reported that 76 per cent of all rail accidents are due to derailments, 7 per cent due to collisions, 16 per cent take place at level crossings and 1 per cent is due to fires. A resource crunch is said to be the main cause behind all on-goings in Indian Railways.
Given the fact that non of the predecessors of Sadananda Gowda, the present Railway Minister, have taken much action, the high points of Kakodkar Committee Report – 2012 are equally important. These state:
1. Elimination of all Level Crossings (manned and unmanned) in the next five years with an estimated cost of Rs 50,000 crore.
2. Maintenance of safety-related infrastructure at a cost of Rs 20,000 crore.
3. Implementation of Advance Signaling System through Special Purpose Vehicle covering 19,000 km of trunk route with an estimated cost of Rs 20,000 crore.
4. All new coaches will be of safer LHB type with a total cost of Rs 10,000 crore.
5. Total financial implication for the implementation of the committee report is Rs 1,00,000 crore which has to be funded by safety cess on passengers, deferred dividend, grant by Central Government etc.
While these reports are being dusted off, passenger and freight charges being hiked. The bottomline is that Indian Railways needs money to better its safety parameters. With eight Ministers in 10 years of UPA’s decade-long rule, not only was there inaction, but Ministers like Mamata Banerjee, who in her almost two-year tenure (May 26, 2009 to May 19, 2011) had burdened the Ministry with additional trains and had siphoned off funds for allied services like opening medical colleges etc. The annual Budget outlay in 2013 for the Railways was Rs 63,363 crores. Recent fare hikes were supposed to mop up an additional amount of Rs 8000 crore.
This portrays how grim the conditions are. While people say that curbing corruption can be a big moneysaver, let us not forget that with the Railways having a staff so enormous, wishing away corruption in a day is expecting team Modi to be wizards. This is where the challenge comes for the upcoming Railway Budget.
With fare hikes, Narendra Modi has the raised the bar even more. Cosmetic changes like additional services such as disposable linen and automatic doors in premier trains are not enough. What is needed is a clear roadmap to recovery of the enterprise with specific, visible changes that can reassure the person in the street that things are changing. Then alone will there be a marked difference between the present team and the ones that came and went.

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