Despite talk of liberalisation and modernisation, the Indian Railways remains mired in antiquity. SANDEEP DIKSHIT takes a look at the dynamics of its functioning.
THE Indian Railways is again living up to its tag of a mobile railway museum after its staffers by-passed an antiquated signalling system and allowed two trains to collide head-on in Punjab recently. The dramatic aftermath of that mid-morning collision has revived the uneasy feeling in many travellers: How high is the probability of ending up similarly, they wonder, as the trains speed them along the Indian countryside?
For the last 10 years, the trend of a careless staff rendered helpless by the size of the system is clear. The railways report derailments and other accidents around the year. Since most involve goods trains, there is little loss of life and even less public interest. The somnolence is interrupted once in a while by a big bang between two express trains travelling at high speed, usually far away from the metros. Each time the catalysts are railway staffers or the equipment.
The railways are paying the price for attempting to be viable according to concepts of market economy while simultaneously performing social functions on behalf of the Government. With the beginning of liberalisation, it was told to depend more on loans from the market at high interest rates to fund modernisation and expansion. The returns from such investments did not match the interest outgo and the railways' profits were being squeezed. The high accident rates made policy makers recognise the impact of such an approach but their views were considered outdated.
Even though a major accident occurred every three months and railway officials were convinced of the need for a massive infusion of funds at low interest rates, political instability from 1996 to 1998 and Mamata Banerjee's Bengal-obsessed tenure meant that the political executive remained unconvinced of the need for a funding policy in which the State would play a key role. Instead, the focus on invisible privatisation of the railways and boosting the carrying capacity of the network continued. This left the railways with very little profits to invest and make the system responsive to the increasing burden of a growing economy and increasing migration.
The cry for modernisation also remained unheard because liberalisation saw the Indian elite including senior railway officers travelling by air. Most victims in collisions were the poor or the lower middle class. The Central Government's quest to balance the budgetary balance sheet ignored human tragedies.
As a result, by the turn of the millennium, a quarter of the tracks, 40,000 coaches and wagons, several hundred bridges and thousands of signals had outlived their service life. But top Government economists continued with their efforts to integrate the totally state-owned railways into the market economy. Talk of corporatisation whose major axiom was a leaner workforce and handing over assets to private entrepreneurs impacted the morale of railway staffers especially in out-of-the-way stations that afford few alternate employment opportunities.
Veteran railway watchers declare that it is impossible to make the Indian railways absolutely accident-free because of is size. One train is added nearly every day to its 65,000 km-long network. Though most are freight trains, the addition of four express trains every month further burdens the staff already grappling with the task of transporting over 500 crore passengers every year. At the same time, its accident rate compares favourably with other large railways, which operate with the added advantage of lesser passenger and freight loads.
The high body count after each collision involving passenger trains caused mostly by staff fatigue finally forced the Central Government to apply policy correctives in 2001. The railways were permitted to tax passengers to raise Rs. 5,000 crores and the Central Government promised Rs. 12,000 crores as additional grant to replace all over-aged equipment over six years. The departure from years of resource rationing has had its impact. The railways now confidently talk of eliminating all collisions accounting for over one-third of the deaths over the next six years. The latest railway supplementary budget approved by Parliament recently proposes the acquisition of sophisticated sonar-based equipment to check pier strengths of its 50,000 bridges of early 20th Century vintage.
More funds have meant sophisticated signalling equipment, stronger tracks and modern coaches and locomotives. For the first time in a decade, the railways are now talking about increasing train speeds up to 150 kmph, beginning with the Delhi-Howrah and Delhi-Chennai corridors.
However, there is a disconnect between officers who frame policies and the staff who implement it. As is the case with other institutions, the fine print of implementation is smudged and rankles the staff. Hardly any officer has been disciplined after an accident whereas the staff is immediately arrested and criminal cases registered against them.
Walkie-talkies given to the frontline staff have a weak range and drivers and guards can rarely get in touch with station staff from a distance of over three km or when the train is at high speed. They complain that the best walkie-talkies are apportioned to the staff who come more in contact with the officers than those always on the move. The engine cabs have always been an area of discomfort. The Indian Railway must be among the few railways of this size that does not provide a toilet in the cab. The dιcor is drab and boring. In addition to enclosed air-conditioned spaces distancing the officers from the staff, there is a decline in passion towards the job. The absence of culpability against officers even after serious accidents has made many of them casual in their approach.
The Railways argues that the decline in institutional cohesiveness is more gradual as compared to the state's other edifices. That may be so. But the transport industry is perhaps the only one where an accident results in the loss of life of customers. While the railways are reducing human dependence in maintenance and operations, better man-machine interaction is still some way off.
That requires a committed political and bureaucratic leadership or another huge mishap to stir them into action. The signs of late have not been encouraging. From the time it took over, the Rail Bhavan's current political leadership is busy in the electoral battle for Bihar and Jharkhand leaving it with little time to absorb the dynamics of this vast system and monitor officials charting a course that would rid it of the epithet of being the world's largest mobile railway museum.
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