INDIAN RAILWAYS ENQUIRY SYSTEM – LYING, AS USUAL….

My parents were travelling from ShivGanga Express (12559 – Varanasi to New Delhi) last evening. The train, considered the most important one between Varanasi and New Delhi, starts from the Manduadih station (MUV), one of the sub-stations of the Varanasi Railway Junction, at 7:40 PM and arrives in New Delhi (NDLS) at 8:10 AM the next day. And the thing is, its gets delayed daily. Okay, don’t get swayed by Indian Railways’ National Train Enquiry System (NTES) app on your smartphone or – https://enquiry.indianrail.gov.in/ntes/ – its desktop version.

They work overtime to do the damage control that has become synonymous with Indian Railways – chronic delays. Most of the time, they end up showing ‘earlier than real’ time of a train’s arrival. But this ‘jugaad’ hurts the Indian Railway’s misplaced pride even more. The network that has been busy fleecing passengers during some last years to increase its revenue, with measures like dynamic fare pricing as air carriers do or Premium Tatkal scheme that makes even a sleeper class ticket as expensive as AC-II or AC-III, has absolutely failed to meet the most basic need of any transport network – timely arrival and departure of trains. And mind you, most of this is due to its human network. The irony of all this is, you can easily find cheaper airfares for the same route than what some of premium trains offer.

And when even most of its premium trains routinely get delayed – including Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto – we don’t need to do much data digging about the state of affairs with the superfast trains, like the one my parents were travelling from. And last evening and this morning were no different. The train usually starts getting late as it passes the Allahabad Junction. By the time the train arrives in Kanpur, already an hour or two late, it enters the phase where it adds up delayed minutes to its quantum quite regularly, so much so, that by the time it reaches in the catchment area of Delhi, it becomes a nightmare for passengers.

These are the snapshots of the NTES app this morning that show how Indian Railways takes us for a ride. The screenshots taken at 10:36 AM show the train is delayed by 2.21 hours and will reach Delhi by 10:31 AM. We can give the NTES benefit of doubt here as the site may take some minutes in updating the information.

So I called my parents at 10:41 AM to confirm if the train had arrived so that I could ask the driver to approach them but what they told me, in turn told me, that the train was still hours away, even if it was just 15 Kms away from the New Delhi railway station. The train was just crossing the Anand Vihar Terminal. I again called them at 11:10 AM and they said the same thing, that they were still in the Anand Vihar area.

I again checked the NTES app at 11:13 AM. It was now showing the train was delayed by 2.48 hours with its expected New Delhi arrival at 10:48 AM. But here is this thing to see. This information on the NTES app was updated at 10:39 AM, 39 minutes after the last update at 10 AM as we can see in the screenshots but both show the same last station departed – ‘Departed from Chipyana Buzurg at 9:55 AM 23 Nov. 29 Kms to arrive New Delhi.’ So, in a sense, no real time update. The maps of the train route are also showing the same pointers.

I again checked the NTES app at 11:24 AM. And bingo, this time it showed the train had arrived New Delhi at 11:05 AM (delayed by 2.55 hours). The information was updated at 11:18 AM. Keeping in mind the history of the NTES app for giving misleading information, I called my parents at 11:25 PM to confirm it. And guess what they said. They told me that the train was still standing at the Shivaji Bridge station, almost 1.5 Kms away from the New Delhi railway station. The train finally arrived at the New Delhi railway station at 11:37 AM, delayed by 3.27 hours.

©SantoshChaubey

SURESH PRABHU’S SELECTIVE SOCIAL MEDIA SAVVINESS AGAIN!

Most of our ministers and politicians have got social media savvy – even those who don’t conform to the prevalent notions attached with the savviness of being socially aware of media’s commoners’ extension.

But not without the routine hues of our so-routine politics – a potent mix of ‘to be/not to be/and maybe’.

And ‘I, me, myself, my work, my constituency, my party and my ideology are always right’ is the basic tenet here as well – something that first comes to the senses that prevail this landscape – something that defines our politics when we look for words to describe it.

That makes our politicians ‘selectively honest’ – be it direct communication or indirect access to people through social media.

So, even if our ministers and politicians have got social media savvy, their activity (or intense activity, like that of Suresh Prabhu, our rail minister) is heavily loaded towards favourable views and cosy knits.

And Suresh Prabhu comes in the front league of such signatures.

Though he looks like one of the most busy souls in our system, tweeting dozens of views and replies every day, he never responds to negative or uncomfortable tweets. I would like to use ‘seldom in place of never’ here, but if I go by my experience, it doesn’t allow that – going by at least two bad experiences that I have had with Indian Railways. One was today and one was sometimes in the past. On both occasions, seeing Twitter promptness of Mr. Prabhu, I tweeted my problems tagging him. I did so multiple times but not even once did Mr. Prabhu respond.

Just a cursory glance through my tweets today and those of Mr. Prabhu will be more than enough to prove the point here. And like it is, and like I wrote in my previous post on Mr. Prabhu’s ‘social media alertness’, it doesn’t matter whether Mr. Prabhu personally handles his social media accounts or he has a team to manage it.

While my tweets are here, Mr. Prabhu’s Twitter handle is @SureshPrabhu. You can go there and check yourself.

tweet1

©SantoshChaubey

A LOGICAL RAIL BUDGET BUT WHAT ABOUT DEFUNCT WORK ETHOS OF INDIAN RAILWAYS?

Some headlines from the past hour on the Rail Budget 2016 are:

Rail Budget growth-oriented, but revenue target will be a challenge, says industry – Times of India
Rail Budget gets a thumbs down on D-Street for fourth consecutive time – Economic Times
Rail Budget 2016: PwC says investment to be a challenge for Railway amid flat traffic, high costs – Economic Times
Rail Budget 2016: Railway-related stocks fall up to 10% on Dalal Street – Business Today
Big proposals, no fare hike: How Suresh Prabhu avoided the bitter pill in Rail Budget 2016 – Firstpost
On Rail Budget day, Indian rupee hits new 30-month low at 68.72 vs US dollar – Financial Express

These are just few from the lot of analytical pieces written – taking sides based on the parameters taken into consideration – but overall, it is a mixed bag with the obvious question – that asks – how – a how that can unravel every good intention behind a Railway Budget that is otherwise logical and future oriented.

The Rail Budget 2016 started on a logical note – with no-nonsense announcements and proposals. In its initial run, as Suresh Prabhu, the Rail Minister started presenting it, it sounded the most logical Rail Budget in the recent times.

The budget began with more emphasis on improving passenger services and amenities this year – something long overdue – than announcing mindlessly new trains to appease votebanks – but in the end, it came out to be pretty ambitious – and that is the whole point behind raising questions – shadowing the positive senses.

The Rail Budget 2016 is passenger centric, policy change centric and future centric that also intends to be ‘work culture change’ centric. It, in fact, talks vehemently about it.

But given the sorry state of the affairs at Indian Railways, we need to be sceptical. In fact, we need cynical questions here.

Indian Railways is a mammoth organization employing maximum number of people in the world’s largest democracy and claiming a robust outreach network in almost every part of country barring the North-East. It is good that this strategically important last mile connectivity is now a priority of the government. And so, Indian Railways is the lifeline of the nation as the majority here still cannot afford air-travel.

But Indian Railways is a corrupt and defunct organization. Corruption, in fact, has percolated in every wing of its functioning – from tickets checkers or TTEs travelling in trains to booking clerks duping innocent people on ticket booking windows to its officials (in every hue) sitting in its zonal offices to its headquarters in Delhi.

And this corruption is vivid and variegated – from petty offences like TTEs illicitly pocketing money in trains to senior level officers cornering big convenience money in freight handling to big commission in projects.

Unless that culture is not corrected, any attempt to take Indian Railways on a futuristic journey of course correction is impossible.

So, whatever Mr. Suresh Prabhu intends to do with his reformative tools, with newly proposed three freight corridors, with no hike in passenger and freight fare to build on volume, with more and more use of technology in enabling Railways to act more passenger customer friendly, with ways to increase revenue, with plans to build infrastructure including private collaboration, we need to keep in mind that it is about mindset change – a mindset that travels through the floodgates of bribes and other modes of illicit money.

The chronic corruption that has infested every part and every appendage of the huge machinery that Indian Railways is.

A mindset change is a long and tedious process with no timeframe and with no guarantee of outcome. It may happen. It may not happen. It becomes even more complicated when the ‘mindset’ is shaped by corruption as is the case with Indian Railways.

And Mr. Suresh Prabhu is one of its most prime examples. He is very active on Twitter. In fact, his alertness on Twitter is an example for all other ministers to follow – but only as long as it pleases him. He doesn’t like to act on or respond to negative tweets.

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/

NO MORE ‘HALF-TICKETS’!

It is very difficult – pushing a massive organization like Indian Railways move to a healthy financial concoction that would cure its ailments (and ills) to make it ‘lifeline for India’, not only for its toiling common men and ‘not so toiling’ other folks, but for the enterprise of the Government of India as well.

And that is much more troublesome than ‘easier said than done’. It is, in fact, an assignment of ‘unachievable’ proportions with ‘almost’ chances of failure.

And we expect a reform-oriented Rail Minister like Suresh Prabhu will have that it mind.

That is why he is trying all, relevant reforms and ‘even those measures that almost would call irrelevant’.

Obviously, I am here talking about the Janta, the common folks, the Aam Aadmi (the common Indian, and not the ‘Aam Aadmis’ of the ‘Aam Aadmi Party’).

It is now a well established fact that a train journey, in its AC First Class, may cost you more than a roundup by a flight.

So, a compulsion of not getting bookings elsewhere, a sense of romance with train journeys in relative comfort of stretching your legs and lying down and availability of time shall make Indian Railways a natural choice for a ‘normal cost of flight’.

And that makes ‘Indian Railways’ at par with airlines – at least in that sense. But, it was so even before Suresh Prabhu.

So, Suresh Prabhu tried this one.

From April 2016 onwards, Indian Railways will charge full fare for child passengers 5 to 12 years old instead of the half amount that it charges now. Now, this is similar to what air carriers do – no concept of similar concessional tickets – so, no more child ‘half tickets’ in trains. Let’s see when it comes to senior citizens – the only age-group left untouched so far.
So, in one go, Mr. Prabhu has inscribed his name in the annals of related journals as a reform-oriented Rail Minister who went the extra mile to instil some ‘life’ in India’s connectivity ‘lifeline’.

Even if at the cost of ‘making life troublesome’ for many for whom Indian Railways is the only option or the most preferred option to travel!

The proposed measure will certainly not affect those who choose Indian Railways for ‘different reasons mentioned above’ and who can afford being airborne.

Now, we need to see how it will play out when this ‘full fare for 5 to 12 year old’ is rolled out and the debate will start intensifying in February next year when the next Rail Budget will be presented given the fact that even if perennially ‘delayed’, Indian Railways is still the lifeline for almost Indians and ‘half ticket’ is an issue that will have populist echoes and social (and electoral) repercussions.

It is, in fact, so socially ingrained that, apart from being a social and financial need in travel plans of many families, it has become part of our popular culture as well – the 1962 Kishore Kumar classic ‘Half Ticket‘ is just an example.

Like a true ‘Aam Aadmi’, we are compelled to accept whatever our policymakers propose for us, especially when the next parliamentary polls are over three years away.

Anyway, let’s see what happens!

That reform measure is still 109 days away. Till then enjoy this ‘Half Ticket’ song.

Suresh Prabhu

Featured Image Courtesy: A themed cartoon by my sister Ragini

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/

SURESH PRABHU’S ‘SOCIAL SENSITIVITY’ OF ‘SOCIAL MEDIA ALERTNESS’

TWEETS AND RETWEETS OF NOVEMBER 27 TWITTER POSTS BY SURESH PRABHU:

Suresh Prabhu Retweeted
Sapthagiri M ‏@SapthagiriM Nov 27
Neatness that I hardly saw before in railways stations.. Kacheguda right now.. @SCRailwayIndia @sureshpprabhu

Suresh Prabhu Retweeted
Ministry of Railways ‏@RailMinIndia Nov 27
NDLS- HWH is part of most congested section, long awaited capacity enhancement work is priority of MR @sureshpprabhu

Suresh Prabhu Retweeted
Arvind Agarwal ‏@arvind_agarwal Nov 27
Railways offers subsidised pilgrimage packages.
http://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/railways-offers-subsidised-pilgrimage-packages/story-hbOWgKo7vXLN3YEiPh05jK.html
@sureshpprabhu @RailMinIndia

Suresh Prabhu Retweeted
Gowtham ‏@gowthaam Nov 27
Travelling in train after a year in 3rd AC.can see visible difference in cleanliness in coach & beds.Thnx @sureshpprabhu ji & team

Suresh Prabhu Retweeted
PRASANTA KUMAR JENA ‏@jena_prasanta Nov 27
@RailMinIndia @sureshpprabhu Fact is bigger the size more difficult to transform. Rly has set a foot in long ambitious transformation path

Suresh Prabhu ‏@sureshpprabhu Nov 27
Debate in LS @narendramodi raises it to greater height.Lets worship constitution as holy book to be followed in spirit by all to progress

Suresh Prabhu Retweeted
Parag sharma ‏@paragjournalist Nov 27 View translation
सच में @sureshpprabhu sir आपने जैसा कहा वैसा कर रहे हैं We r on track sir, हम दुनिया को दिखाएंगे, भारत क्या है..

Suresh Prabhu Retweeted
DRM Bilaspur ‏@DRMBilaspur Nov 27
30% growth witnessed in the number of passengers at Akaltara Railway Station during fortress check.

Suresh Prabhu ‏@sureshpprabhu Nov 27
Suresh Prabhu Retweeted @GMSouthernrailway
Very important to take care of public health post flooding.IR working on it

Suresh Prabhu Retweeted
SouthCentralRailway ‏@SCRailwayIndia Nov 27
@RailMinIndia @sureshpprabhu
More than 60% of the targeted #RainwaterHarvesting pits constructed on SCR
#savewater

Suresh Prabhu Retweeted
Ministry of Railways ‏@RailMinIndia Nov 27
Morgan Stanley report on Indian Railways : The Next India – The Return of the Transportation Behemoth

Suresh Prabhu Retweeted
Raja ‏@Raja_Sw Nov 27
Still a lot that can be improved in IR. Long road still ahead. But things seem to be improving. @sureshpprabhu @RailMinIndia @drmsbc @GMSWR

Suresh Prabhu Retweeted
vadakkus ‏@vadakkus Nov 27
vadakkus Retweeted CPRO Central Railway
The biggest e-commerce entity in India by far, ever since its inception.

Suresh Prabhu Retweeted
SouthCentralRailway ‏@SCRailwayIndia Nov 27
SouthCentralRailway Retweeted General Manager SCR
@RailMinIndia @sureshpprabhu
#EnergyConservation #energyefficiency #GoGreen #COP21 #GreenEnergy

Now, Suresh Prabhu, the Railway Minister of India, is one politician who looks ‘intensely’ busy on Twitter – as his Twitter feed for this day (or any other day) suggests.

And these are just some of a barrage of Tweets on his Twitter page – tweeted (and retweeted) by Mr. Suresh Prabhu on November 27.

And he does so daily.

And the issues that he looks concerned about sound holistic – clean trains and platforms, other cleanliness measures in different railway services, reforms in Indian Railways, the efforts for a ‘turnaround’ story, capacity enhancements, improvement in operational statistics, energy conservation, social obligations like ‘rain water harvesting’ and so on – and the concern of passengers’ well-being – but there is a catch.

See this:

Santosh Chaubey ‏@SantoshChaubeyy Nov 27
@sureshpprabhu – Mr. Prabhu, no response yet. 12581 Delhi time is 12.20 pm. Reached thr at 2.15 pm. N it happens daily wid many trains.

Santosh Chaubey ‏@SantoshChaubeyy Nov 27
@sureshpprabhu – 6th tweet 2day – no response from u who is very active on Twitter. 12581 Delhi time -12.20 pm. 1.30 pm n it is still GZB

Santosh Chaubey ‏@SantoshChaubeyy Nov 27
@sureshpprabhu – 5th tweet 2day – 12581 almost not running – well behind it’s Delhi time of 12.20 pm – the IR shame continues

Santosh Chaubey ‏@SantoshChaubeyy Nov 27
@sureshpprabhu – 5th tweet today – already delayed 12581 is now crawling post Aligarh – looks more misery ahead

Santosh Chaubey ‏@SantoshChaubeyy Nov 27
@sureshpprabhu -my 3rd tweet 2 u 2day-ppl say n u also retweet-but y sum trains get delayd daily-like this 12581-a routine-still no respite

Santosh Chaubey ‏@SantoshChaubeyy Nov 27
@sureshpprabhu People say n you also retweet -but y some trains get delayed daily-like this 12581-a daily routine-today, it’s already 3 hrs!

Santosh Chaubey ‏@SantoshChaubeyy Nov 27
@sureshpprabhu People say, you also retweet – but y some trains get delayed daily-like this 12581-a daily routine-today, it’s already 3 hrs!

These eight tweets were my experimental call to check the ‘social sensitivity of social media alertness’ of our Railway Minister – who by any possible means – looks very Twitter savvy – in using social media as an effective tool of his governance.

But as expected, he did not respond to even a single one – because they were pointing to a well known, universal shame of Indian Railways that all Indian Railways (IR) officials conveniently and habitually deny/ignore/pass – that almost of the trains in India don’t run on time – that travelling by many trains are considered an absolute wastage of time as they run delayed by hours – day after day – just name them and one can count many of them – in every part of the country the Indian Railways is operating in – and that includes almost the whole of the country. There are trains that are cursed to get delayed regularly – the ‘ignorable gems’ in eyes of IR’s apathetic officers.

Here, in my case, I started my train journey at 10:30 PM on November 26 night. Though it is a superfast train (Number – 12581), people warned me of its bad reputation of running late almost daily. But I thought to give it a try, as I wanted to reignite the romance of a train journey after a long time and prompted by ‘prompt tweets’ of Suresh Prabhu, I thought I should take a chance.

But came November 27 morning, and my hopes had some serious beating. When I woke up, I found the train was behind its schedule while at Kanpur and was running late by some 2.30 hours.

Well, I had an important meeting scheduled in the evening and I started feeling sort of unease. But then, I also knew I could not do anything. Various precedents of my yore have told me that one should never trust the trains run by Indian Railways, especially in crisis hours. 99 per cent chances they will fail you. After all, you can gauge sentiments on this line by the fact that a train running one or two hours late is considered ‘on time’ by the standards of Indian Railways.

While my unease was growing, I thought to use it to ‘gauge’ the sensitivity of Mr. Railway Minister. Starting from around 7 AM, I tweeted tagging Mr. Prabhu around 8 times, expecting some response from him.

But it did not have to come and it didn’t come. Either Mr. Prabhu didn’t see any of my tweets, something that is hard to believe going by the kinds he retweets daily, or he conveniently ignored them.

And that clears one thing – the fact that is known widely – that our politicians don’t see or don’t like to see the ‘uncomfortable facts’.

There is nothing wrong in what Mr. Prabhu does with his Twitter page. Even if selectively, he is active there. No one can expect he can do some miracle or can turnaround the massive public organization with massive losses run by the Indian government in such a short time with most of its senior Railway officials turning a blind eye to what should be treated as criminal offences in a civilized society.

We know a ‘totally’ politicised Indian Railways cannot accommodate its vast network of trains to manage ‘running efficiency and timeliness’ with the poor infrastructure it has right now but just to give indications of a positive symbolism, Mr. Prabhu could have responded to my tweets (and should respond even to negative or critical tweets).

What do you say Mr. Prabhu (@sureshpprabhu)?

Suresh Prabhu Collage

Featured Image Courtesy: Collage prepared from screenshots of IR’s website, Mr. Suresh Prabhu’s Twitter page and my tweets

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: OUR SYSTEM IS BUSY COMPARTMENTALIZING US..

Ideally, politics of democracies like India which have mixed cultural environment (socialist + capitalist), strives for a class-less society – at least the political rhetoric largely says and still tries to go (though the corresponding acts do not support).

But we live in an environment, in a society, where class is a reality, where sub-classes are seen as natural as the human existence, where society is layered between caste, religion and income disparities.

Yes, a capitalist transformation of policymaking and economy was indeed the need of the day to address the innate problems of the world’s largest democracy and the second most populous country that was also home to the majority of poor in the world.

And it has helped people to transcend barriers of caste and thus social status to graduate to any category their capacity allows them to. But the share is still small like the share of inter-caste and inter-religious weddings – almost non-existent when seen in the context of around 1.25 billion people strong Indian community.

Alternatively, it has caused deepening of the layered structure of our society – based on income disparity – based on the sociological slicer – the widening gap between haves and have-nots.

And the easiest way to realize it is having a look on how our modes of public transportation work – in terms of handling passengers.

Start with buses – and you have buses poorly kept and managed that carry the largest number of people from our society – people who can afford these buses only. Graduate many steps higher and one can see some air-conditioned buses plying on the roads. These buses, though internally as shabbily managed as their poor non-ac counterparts, are much less in number because authorities know very few people can afford them or prefer to afford them. Then come at the top the luxury air-conditioned buses – like the Volvo bus services. Very few, from well-to-do class of society, who cannot manage a train ticket or who still cannot afford a flight ticket (for different reasons), opt for these.

Similar is the story of India’s lifeline – trains run by Indian Railways. People from the lowest strata of the society fight for an elusive berth or some hard-earned place in general class, unreserved compartments of trains. Those who are still financially weaker enough to afford the ac-class tickets (including Gharib Raths), choose for some relief in reserved tickets of the sleeper class. And these two categories of coaches carry the maximum number of people – in the overall passenger traffic of Indian Railways.

Then comes the ac-class. It has classes and sub-classes. It starts with Gharib Raths for the poorest of the lot who opt to go for an ac ride. Then comes the numbers of ac-3, ac-2 and ac-1, in increasing scale of cost and therefore comfort levels. Most ac-preferring guys go with ac-3 (three tier air-conditioned class). Types of trains also discriminate here. Express trains cost less than super-fast trains while Shatabdi and Rajdhani trains are considered cream of the bunch. In fact, ac-1 of Rajdhani trains proves costly than an economy flight ticket when taken well in advance.

But the class story extends to airlines as well – most visible in segregation of budget airlines from full service carriers.

Budget airlines or no-frills airlines have made it possible for people to consider flying who can afford ac train travel. But customer satisfaction and customer comfort are the last items on priority list of these carriers. How passengers are cramped in these aircrafts is an issue of global debate.

And even many full service carriers behave insensitively towards the needs of the economy class passengers. Although they make the bulk of the bookings, the crew is more leaned in catering to the needs of the so-called premiere class or executive class or business class or first class passengers. Normally, these tickets are priced almost three-times to an economy class ticket.

Then there are sub-subclasses within the economy subclass. Many budget airlines and full service carriers segregate passengers based on their paying capacity or preferences into different categories – those paying for a lower package – those paying for a higher package – and those paying for an even higher package. And this one is worse than all because the discriminated passengers are made to sit a larger unitary space that is more or less uniform.

Our system is busy compartmentalizing us – based on our income status.

And we have no other way but to be and to become part of this system.

Yes, every type of exception does exist – but then – an exception is always ‘exceptional’.

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/

IN A RAJDHANI EXPRESS TRAIN, IN THE MESS OF ITS PANTRY-CAR

Sounds of different frequencies, each of them loud, sound of a train running at around 100 Kmph, sound of pantry-car waiters and the train staff making in and out of the coaches, and sound of the passengers making informed queries and expressing strong displeasure!

It was not routine as usual for any train in India, a Rajdhani Express train in this case, after a recent price hike.

This time, it was in the name of improving catering standards. The Indian Railways had just revised the catering charges in premium trains (Rajdhani, Shatabdi, Duranto) and the TTEs (ticket checkers) were a harassed lot. They had to issue receipt of the difference of the amount (after the fare revision) to every passenger who had got the ticket booked before October 16.

Given the rush for the Indian trains where every ticket of almost trains is booked within two days of the opening of the reservation window of two months for a train, almost every passenger in the train had his ticket booked before October 16.

Stung by the sudden pressure of increased work, of writing and issuing almost a thousand receipts, TTEs were not even asking for the mandatory IDs for the electronically booked tickets.

This increased fare was reason for the high-pitched sound coming from the heterogenous lot of passengers in every coach – varying frequencies, modulated tones, but each voicing out displeasure as loud as possible and this displeasure was forcing the catering staff of the train to make rounds to the pantry car, keeping them on toes.

And it was for a reason.

Apart from timeliness, a factor that is certainly uncertain with the Indian trains, one can also say so about the quality of the catering, that the food being served in Indian trains, even in premium trains like Rajdhani, is simply substandard.

It was the second day of the quality mission of the Indian Railways but the ‘quality’ was conspicuous by its absence. Those regularly travelling by such (premium) trains were flatly saying that whatever that was there in the name of ‘quality’ had certainly come down, in quantity, in quality. And to add to the misery, these passengers were made to shell out extra bucks to improve the quality.

Given the quality of food being served and the menu items in the platter, the fare revision, in fact, deserved a reduction in the ticket prices.

Passengers were feeling cheated.

That was hitting them more, being the immediate instigating factor raising the protesting voices.

And on that day, in the Rajdhani Express, by certain turn of events, I had the chance to sit for a while in the pantry-car of the train.

It was more maddening there than the situation in the coaches, something that is always the case. This time, it was heightened up. The increased tension in the atmosphere there had its origin in two reasons.

Incidentally, the food packets delivered by the base kitchen of the government run catering outfit were less than the passenger count and the pantry-car staff was in overdrive to meet the requirement. Okay, it was normal to happen so. But it was on a day when there was additional mounting pressure on the pantry-car staff.

It was happening along side the chaos of the anger of the passengers spilling over in the aisles of the coaches. On target were the pantry-car employees who were still supplying the substandard food products, even if the passengers were now paying a revised, increased fare in the name of an upgraded menu.

After putting curries in packets, weights of two packets were taken to confirm if they were according to the Indian Railways norms. The ‘observation’ based random sampling was applied for over 100 packets cooked on-board. And the sample size was just 2!

There was no dearth of raw material (of reputed brands). In fact, it was enough to be wasted and was being wasted. A clear factor that puts the quality of food in trains under scanner is hygiene and certainly, the way food was being cooked and packed there, it wasn’t hygienic.

The staff there, though extra cautious, was in avoidable rush to get things done to get free soon. Putting on gloves while using hands – I could not see it being practiced. The floor of the pantry-car was littered with spill-over from the cooking platform. Utensils and grills were kept below the platform, that was, again, unclean.

And above it, the supervisors, panicked, by the increasing count of complaints in the complaint book, were making regular visits to the pantry-car, shouting at waiters and cooks, making them even more irregular and harsh on the ‘quality’ of the job.

Wastage – good quality raw material for a food cooked and served with unhygienic practices – and don’t ask about taste. Food in trains – it is simply never expected to be tasty.

Then there was another serious issue, based on something that happened there, in fact a breach of trust, an illegal act, for which, even lawsuits are filed – maintaining sanctity of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, in cooking, in packaging, and in distribution.

Though, one can never say it is followed honestly at a place serving both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, it is expected from the outlets charging you premium to maintain this sanctity, and catering services in Rajdhani Express trains should, certainly, come under this category.

But, alas!

Vegetarian and non-vegetarian, the cooking was on. There I saw this silly act. One of the cooks preparing the non-vegetarian curry approached the cook preparing ‘chapatis’ (unleavened circular bread made from wheat flour) to use his cooking stove top to roast chicken. And on the same grill, being used to inflate chapatis, soon, the other cook was roasting chickens. Once he was finished with his roasting stuff, the ‘chapati’ cook was back to his work of inflating chapatis on the same grill.

For those who are strictly vegetarian, such practices are a massive breach of trust. Even for those, who are not strictly vegetarian (egg-eating people come in this category), they too, will not accept chapatis cooked like this if they come to know this. I come in this category.

I protested on this act. I said it was a serious issue. I told them to exclude ‘chapatis’ from my plate. I requested them to replace all the ‘chapatis’ cooked after the chicken was roasted on the grill in the vegetarians platters. Although they said they would do so, I knew they wouldn’t do so.

After it, I had to leave the pantry-car for my berth.

On a day, high on complaints, when passengers were dumping and deriding the food for its quality, they could not have afforded another setback point – delayed delivery, and cooking chapatis for almost 100 passengers would have taken enough time to delay it significantly.

Food quality in trains and planes, I have had bad experiences about it. Okay, trains certainly outdo the planes, even if you travel by a Rajdhani or a Shatabdi Express. I make it a point to ignore pantry-car or railway station food except in emergency situations. In flights, it is still manageable. Your options – it depends much on the carrier and the duration of your flight.

The Rajdhani Express journey on that day only reaffirmed my aversion to the food served in the Indian trains.

Go for it only when you are not left with any other option (including fasting on that overnight journey)!

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/

POLITICIANS MAKE THE INDIAN RAILWAYS BLEED

A half-populist Railway Budget in the election year is the testimony to the survival crisis the Indian Railways is facing. Passenger fares were hiked by the back-door measures and many senseless but populist projects and plans (many of them unachievable) were announced. But the locomotive giant needs immediate and direct measures to become self-sustaining.

Yes, the priority at the moment is to become self-sustainable. Modernization has no scope for now.

Indian Railways is bleeding. It has not been able to do much after the British left the India. It could not gain much in terms of operational and commercial efficiency even in the heydays of the Indian Economy post-1991 that more than quadrupled the size of the Indian Economy.

Its story has been akin to the common man, the ‘aam aadmi’, a compromised and neglected entity in the making of the Indian Democracy – who has been subjected to a sluggish growth rate midst the chaos and chorus of the high-voltage growth of the Indian Economy.

And it is all due to the present political culture.

The ill-health of the Indian Railways is due to the political administration it has had. The biggest landowner of the country was forced to bleed by a decade of almost no passenger or freight rate hike. And the reasons were purely political, not social or economical, the ailing finances of the Indian Railways expose.

The fuel and energy prices have increased manifold in the same time-period. Then there are huge operational expenses incurred in maintaining such a behemoth that is the world’s seventh largest employer and certainly the largest in the country. Add to it the increasing pressure of extending the network and introducing modern facilities like high-speed trains and ramp-up of technology, from operational to commercial.

All this demands a healthy financial performance with consistent revenue generation and cash inflows. The Indian Railways has not been allowed this by its political administrators.

It has been manipulated by the politicians to work as an agency to draw electoral mileage. Nothing has been done to increase or strengthen the network but irrelevant new trains are announced in every Railway Budget. No feasibility studies are conducted before starting a new service. The only consideration is to give more and more goodies to the states belonging to ruling political party or the Railways Minister in case of a ruling coalition.

Fares have been consistently held up for political reasons to serve the political interests. The high share of the freight used to balance the loss here. But with changing times and better road infrastructure, the Indian Railways has lost that balancing edge. From controlling 80 per cent of the freight transportation once, it has come to a dismal 20 per cent of freight share now.

At the same time, the global fuel prices have increased manifold post-2000 putting the pressure on the government (which has always sought to wash its hands off) in absorbing and subsidizing the fuel and energy expenditure owing to the passenger transportation of the Indian Railways.

It has become imperative now (there is no option left) to link the rail fares with the deregulated fuel and varying energy prices. If, we as consumers, need to use the services, almost of us can pay easily. After all, no one travels by the train every other day.

The fuel prices deregulation, though insensitive, politically motivated and socially unacceptable, has been put into effect. So, we as passengers need to accept that. So, we as consumers need to accept the deregulated freight rates.

There is nothing wrong in charging rightfully for the services being provided, and the Indian Railways, anyways, is not at all a costly affair given its range of the different price-pointers.

But why not treat it rightfully then? Why not run it as an efficient outfit in the service of the nation? Why let it bleed by arresting its sources of income for a decade for silly political considerations?

Why make political differences between passenger fares and freight rates when it has to be a decision of economic wisdom and practical requirement?

Why play the game of perceptions for silly political gains?

Yes, it is all due to the present political culture. And this Railways Minister and the Railway Budget was no different either.

Mr. Bansal, like every other rail minister, burdened an already overcrowded rail network with 94 more trains. Already, the Indian Railways are notorious to run with horrible delays. To add to the misery, there were countless projects, plans and plants and concepts, certainly not achievable in the near future. They will follow the long list of delayed or just-on-paper rail projects.

It doesn’t need a Harvard economist to realize what the Indian Railways needs. It needs complete electrification. It needs doubling of lines across the whole network. It needs engines to ferry trains with greater numbers of coaches and not more trains. It needs a rationalize fare structure. It needs a proper land-management policy to commercially explore its land bank, largest in the country.

It needs a common rational thinking to begin with the process of much delayed Indian Railways reforms.

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/

A MORE ‘IN-BETWEEN-THE-LINES’ RAILWAY BUDGET – THE WAY TO A POPULIST UNION BUDGET?

A more ‘in-between-the-lines’ rail budget only supports the notion that the Congress party is preparing for an early Lok Sabha election. Except politics of claims and counterclaims, there was nothing new in the maiden Railway Budget speech of Pawan Kumar Bansal.

After the recent hike in the passenger fares in January, no one was expecting yet another hike in the Lok Sabha election year.

But the government coffers, more than the ill-health of the Indian Railways, was on the radar of the makers of the Railway Budget 2013-14.

The UPA government needs billions in funds to fund its populist schemes to encash them in the upcoming general elections, which by the analysis of the political developments of the moment, are going to be held later this year.

(WHY, MORE THAN ANY OTHER PARTY, THE CONGRESS PARTY WOULD GO FOR A 2013 LOK SABHA ELECTION?)

http://severallyalone.blogspot.in/2013/02/why-more-than-any-other-party-congress.html

Indian Railways’ ill-financial health has been a matter of concern for sometime now and the sudden fare-hike in January was a well thought measure to address, at least, some elements of the financial decline.

The timing served two purposes in one go – financial and political. It gave the Indian Railways the much needed cushion of increased cash flows. It also saved the government from the protests of the political opposition if the hike was announced at the floor of the Parliament during the presentation of the Budget.

It also relieved the government as the increased cash flows would reduce the burden on the Union Budget 2013-14 that an ailing Indian Railways might have posed so that the government could spend more on its populist dole-outs.

But, mere increasing the passenger fares was not enough to address the issue. Indian Railways needs much more to improve and modernize its network and infrastructure. The whole world, and the obvious comparison with China’s large network of high-speed trains, is putting India in poor light.

But, when the primary concern was of survival, who was going to think of modernizing and competing at the level of most modern technological innovations in the rail transportation?

The need of survival asked for increased revenue or increased funding by the government. Now a government, hard-pressed for funds, and all out to collect funds to fund its populist measures in an election year, could not have afforded much.

The other way was increasing the sources of income. The only immediate option available was hiking the fares. But the present administrators of the Indian Railways with the outfit being the lifeline of the country directly affecting the life of almost every Indian, too, were not in a position to do so in an election year. That would sound too unpopulist. Isn’t it?

So, in order to sound populist and people-friendly, as well as to increase the options of revenue generation, the UPA government decided to take the back door.

Hiking passenger fares is a sensitive issue as it directly affects the consumers and may invite negative sentiments from the lower income groups – a gamble not to be taken in an election year.

The Indian politicians believe perceptions play a major role in the electoral battles. But, what if it is a do-or-die situation for the Indian Railways?

So, squeeze him (the common man/the voter) out indirectly. Let him be in the perception that the fares were not hiked again. As for the other price hikes, the UPA government believes (wrongly) that it would be able to sail over the troubled waters by launching its populist schemes.

By the time, the voter would come to realize these back-door games, the elections would already be over.

The Railway Budget has increased the ticket prices indirectly by increasing rates like reservation charges, Tatkal charges and fuel surcharges. As expected, the ‘sleeper class’ has been given the least hike, but the consumer here too, has been duped by the other indirect tariff hikes.

The real killer is the proposal to hike the freight charges as well as its linking with the fuel and energy price variations. So, be ready to pay more each time the diesel or power prices are raised.

Indian Railways, though has a relatively low share of freight, i.e., 20 per cent, around 32 per cent of the Kerosene, diesel and LPG is transported through the Railways.

As the fuel prices are now deregulated and market controlled, expect more of regular periodic hikes in prices of fuels and so of the dependent commodities, from foodgrains to consumer durables.

Periodic hike in the fuel prices would increase freight charges increasing prices of the commodities being transported through the Indian Railways. The increased rail freight rates would, in turn, further increase the fuel prices. That would, indeed, be a vicious circle for Manmohan’s ‘aam aadmi’.

But that is indirect and Mr. Bansal has followed one of his predecessors Lalu Yadav, who did many such back-door things, like Tatkal pricing or break-journey rules, to increase revenue figures, that ultimately, squeezed out the common passenger.

What Mr. Bansal has done goes one step ahead. He has not only squeezed the common passenger but has also pressed hard the common man, by introducing the measures that would not only increase the ticket prices, but would also cause price increases across the spectrum of commodities linked with fuel prices and rail transportation.

So, the Indian Railways would be able to manage better and the UPA government will have greater space to manipulate the resources towards the schemes like the direct transfer of cash subsidy or food security or farm debt waiver.

And don’t think much about many loud-mouth claims of new projects, new trains and new concepts – they are just written and spoken to be forgotten. There is no set deadline and timeline for their implementation. In fact, they are just used to decorate the dull and routine fallacies like this Railway Budget.

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/