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/

THE BUZZ WORDS BEFORE THE RAIL BUDGET PRESENTATION

Railway’s financial health: Indian Railways is in dire financial straits. It barely earns to sustain itself when it needs huge funds to modernize its ailing and ageing infrastructure. The high operational ratio, with expenditure being the 90% of the earning, will be discussed with deliberations on ‘how the new Rail Minister will approach the problem’?

Tariff hike: Fares would be hiked or not? Will the freight tariff come down? Will the passenger fare go up? Will the subsidized segments of train fares see rationalization?

Cleanliness: With ‘Clean India’ campaign being one of the cornerstones of Narendra Modi’s policymaking, the Rail Budget is expected to focus heavily on revamping the image of Indian Railways, a limping behemoth where even the A-class stations have questionable cleanliness record or where the catering of even the A-class trains like Rajdhani or Shatabdi cannot be relied on.

Clean energy/Alternative energy: Extending the cleanliness campaign, another big emphasis of the Modi government is to increase the share of clean/green energy in India’s overall energy consumption to the global norms. Indian Railways being a major energy consuming outfit, the Rail Budget is expected to lay down vision on the same.

Water conservation: Open taps or leaking pipelines are a common feature of all stations. Also, huge amount of water is used in cleaning trains and stations and much of it is wasted. But there are no specific guidelines water usage. Water recycling is still not practiced by most of its wings. The budget is expected to come with plans for the same.

High speed corridors: The Rail Budget is expected to and should focus on the high speed corridors, preferably on introducing semi high-speed trains and increasing speed of the existing ones. India doesn’t need a Bullet Train corridor now. Burdening its economy with huge-investment white elephants like Bullet Train projects, the one between Mumbai and Ahmedabad is expected to cost Rs. 60,000 crore, should be avoided. And we can expect this from the pragmatic professional in Suresh Prabhu, the Rail Minister.

Freight v passenger tariff trade off: What Indian Railways earns through freight is used to absorb the loss made by its passenger segment – the story of cross subsidy. It stands now at Rs. 24,000 crore. Indian freight tariff is among the highest in the world while its passenger tariff for suburban and sleeper is among the lowest. It is sort of a double whammy. The cross subsidy is eating into Indian Railway’s financial health and the high freight subsidy is making it lose market share to the road transport operators. Balancing these is a tough task, given the sensitivity of electoral compulsions. It would be interesting to see how Mr. Prabhu reflects on the same.

Customer satisfaction: It is always the buzz word, improving on services and introducing amenities. Cleanliness, better booking options, cooking hygiene, cuisine quality, better options on trains, efficient information broadcasts, wi-fi expansion and so on. The fare dynamics is an important part of it. If the fares are increased, it will be to arrange the funds for better amenities. It the fare are not reduced, it will again be to meet the fund requirement to provide a better customer experience. And if the fare are reduced, what else can be said, it is always the most satisfying aspect for most of the customers.

Collaborations: Need to infused fund in Indian Railways and as the government cannot meet the requirement on its own, there should be collaborations on the card – within India, from abroad. Privatization is certainly a sensitive issue but collaborations with external agencies on PPP model can be practiced. Also, the state governments can be made partners in projects falling in their region.

Make in India: Make In India is prime minister Narendra Modi’s flagship manufacturing initiative for India, intending to make India a production hub. But given the poor financial condition of Indian Railways, it should not be expected that the Rail Budget would come with new projects to produce its requirements in the country that it is currently importing.

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