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/