To whom it may concern

How do we stop politicians from de-railing the Indian Railways?

Published: Saturday 15 January 2005

-- the routine demand for the Union railway minister's resignation and his search for a scapegoat, after an accident, are a bad charade. Meanwhile, there is no brake on accidents: 1,300 persons died in rail accidents in the 1990s; the annual accident average is 300. In a report, the Union railway ministry attributed 83 per cent of accidents to 'human failure': such failures are bound to happen, for technology lags behind a growing scale of operation. In the last 40 years, traffic of goods and passenger has increased sixfold, with only a twofold increase in investment.

The fact is that governments, irrespective of political ideology, have always treated Indian Railways as a fief. The pattern of investment is quite arbitrary, reflecting the lack of long term focus. The heavy focus on electrification in 1990-1991 has given way to, 2000-2001 on, conversion of tracks into broad guage. This is political chicanery: powerful mp s and new railway ministers love to please their constituencies by showering new railway infrastructure. Ever-expansive schemes of passes and free travel heavily dent its finances. The total bill for salary and pension today stands at 60 per cent of total expenditure, while overstaffing is estimated at 25 per cent. Obviously, not much is left for technical upgradation, or safety.

Indian Railways is too serious a proposition to be at the mercy of political jesters. Please-all policy has led to distorted fare and freight pricing: low fares mean passengers contribute only 29 per cent of its revenue. People are subsidised by freight, that rakes in 64 per cent of the revenue. But let this figure not beguile you: The share of transport of goods via rail has fallen from 89 per cent in 1950-51 to 40 per cent in 1995-96. With 62,000 kilometres of tracks, the most energy-efficient and environmentally sound mode of freight transport in India stands severely under-used. Accidents and bad management take another kind of toll. The upper class segement today prefers to fly, with airlines offering reduced fares.

Apart from being an icon of nationalism, Indian Railways has a lot more to offer to India's economy and well-being. Will the minister's resignation help in that? No. The only thing that will work is politicians' withdrawal from its management. Otherwise, 11,000 trains carrying 110 lakh passengers and 1 million tonne of goods will become the world's largest deathtrap.

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