Recent newspaper reports say that the Railway Ministry is planning to privatise the operation of some long distance and overnight trains on several routes like Delhi-Chennai, Delhi-Lucknow, Delhi-Mumbai and others. Already, IRCTC, the catering and tourism company under the Ministry has been entrusted with the Tejas Express trains running between Lucknow and New Delhi and between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The Financial Express of 10th October reported Amitabh Kant, CEO, NITI Aayog, saying that 150 railway trains and 50 railway stations could be privatised.
The privatisation of operation of railway trains was one of the recommendations of the committee on railway restructuring constituted by the newly formed NDA government in 2015 of which I was a member. The committee was headed by Bibek Debroy, presently Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council. The committee contained distinguished persons like Gurcharan Das, Ravi Narain, Partha Mukhopadhyay and Rajendra Kashyap, besides Additional Secretaries from the Departments of Economic Affairs and Expenditure, one of whom is now the Chairman of SEBI and the other a Member of the Fifteenth Finance Commission.
The committee considered various options and recommended a few which we thought were realistically capable of implementation in the political context. The report immediately aroused howls of protest from the powerful Unions, which, together, constitute a huge chunk of the workforce of the Government of India. It is good to see that some of the recommendations are being implemented in phases.
Of the recommendations already implemented, the most significant is the abolition of a separate Railway budget and its merger in the Union Budget. The Railway Budget was an old legacy, started in 1925, on the recommendation of a committee headed by William Acworth. Another recommendation that saw the light of day was the one on starting joint ventures with State governments for suburban railway services and sub-optimal new lines. The committee proposed an Investment Advisory Committee, considering the huge financial requirements to repair and modernise the ageing railway infrastructure and rolling stocks. It suggested that non-core activities, now run by the railways, such as policing, medical care, schools, catering, estate development and the like, may be outsourced, not necessarily to the private sector, but to parallel government agencies like the CISF, CPWD, CGHS and others. It recommended additional decentralisation, right down to the level of District Railway Manager and even below, granting them higher financial and administrative powers, another recommendation that has been partially carried out.
However a key recommendation to combine the plethora of Group A Services and streams of recruitment to just two main Services, the Indian Railway Technical Service, comprising all the technical streams, and the Indian Railway Logistics Service, consisting of the three non-technical services, has not been implemented. This reform is necessary to bring order into the railway system of administration and avoid inter-Service conflict and rivalry. Also, in the context of private operation of railway trains and in order to make the system more economically viable, two other recommendations- the establishment of a Railway Regulatory Authority to ensure a level playing field as well as fair returns on investment and the introduction of commercial accounting - are critical and must be looked at seriously as the lumbering behemoth gradually reinvents itself.
The Indian railways is surely the lifeline of India. It carries millions of passengers every day, thousands of tonnes of various goods, raw materials and fuels for industry everywhere, connects the length and breadth of the country like no other institution except the ubiquitous post office, provides and facilitates lakhs of jobs, acts as the face of modernisation and connectivity to countless villages. It is one of the key building blocks of our history, an institution that creates a sense of belonging in a diverse society, divided otherwise in every possible way.
The railway culture runs in my veins, regardless of the fact that throughout my working career, I have not had much to do with it. My father was a railwayman and my mother was an inveterate temple goer. A good part of my childhood was therefore spent in railway trains, railway retiring rooms, railway guest houses, in the homes of other railwaymen, friends of my father and in temples .He was not very high up in the railway hierarchy in those days and was, therefore, entitled only to what was called a four wheel railway saloon, much smaller than six wheel or eight wheel saloons, but still equipped with a kitchen and an attached toilet. The four wheel saloon was too small to be attached to express or mail trains and, therefore, we chugged along slowly as the last carriage in passenger and goods trains. They were simple carriages, made of wood, not steel, with pull down windows and shutters. The first class compartments of those times were reasonably well provided by Indian middle class standards, directly opening on to the platforms and with an attached toilet. When wood yielded to steel in the making of railway “bogies”, the first class compartment became part of a line of compartments with an adjoining corridor. Today, I don’t see first class compartments and two-tier and three-tier carriages predominate.
Each train journey was an adventure in itself. The changing landscape, the different languages, modes of dress and the mannerisms and preferred foods of people taught lessons on the diversity of India and the bonding that easily takes place between simple, ordinary folk, separated otherwise by language, religion, culture and caste. Earlier, passengers could directly access hawkers in railway stations selling sweets, snacks, bangles, what have you. As the trains meandered slowly across the country, pulled by steam engines which had often to stop and refresh themselves with fresh infusions of coal and steam, nature floated by in its myriad colours and forms.
Some trains have become part of India’s folklore. One train which we often used on our journeys from Delhi to the south was the Grand Trunk Express. Years ago, in 1921, a military train carried the families of a regiment from Peshawar to Cannanore. The railwaymen of those days then concluded that it was possible to connect the far south with the distant north. The Grand Trunk Express then came into existence, initially consisting of just two carriages, attached to multiple trains across tracks belonging to different companies, running from Peshawar to Mangalore. The Indian railway system had then not been unified. There were several companies, starting with the Great Indian Peninsula Railway in 1853. Then came the East India Railway, based at Calcutta and the Madras Railway. The princely states also entered the scene and, soon, we had the Gaekwad Baroda State Railway in 1863, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in 1880( which was designated a World Heritage Site in 1999), the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in1899 and several others. The first Indian locomotive was built for the Rajputana Malwa Railway in 1895.
The two carriages metamorphosed into a full train from Mettupalayam to Delhi. The GT, as it is affectionately known, became a dedicated daily train between Delhi and Madras in 1930. Sitting in the Grand Trunk and watching the transformation of India from the South to the North was an unforgettable experience. Never mind the coal and the dust. Never mind the huffing and puffing as it laboured across the Vindhyas. Never mind the unscheduled stops when the steam engine panted to a halt for refreshment. It was all part of one glorious celebration of the Indian subcontinent. Nor was the GT alone in its splendour.There was the Frontier Mail, initially flagged off from Colaba Terminus to Peshawar in 1828, now, alas, no more, subsumed as it is by the Golden Temple Express. There was the Punjab Mail, the Deccan Queen, the Taj Express, the Flying Ranee, legendary trains, some still running, but shorn of the glory of the past.
The trains of today are made of steel and therefore hotter, faster with no time to dawdle at stations for passengers to immerse themselves in local cultures. Yet they reveal the economic transformation of India as we race past sprawling industrial areas. Some changes are almost unbelievable. I left Kerala for Central service in 1996 and came back only in 2011. In the pre-1996 days, tea and coffee and snacks were served in chair cars by Malayali attendants. Today, we see no Malayali attendant, only people from northern States, Bengal and Nepal, standing testimony to the growing prosperity of Kerala and the willingness of people to travel across the country to earn a living, clearly underscoring the essential unity among the peoples of India and their infinite capacity to imbibe the cultures of each other.
The stately steam engine is gone, replaced by more powerful diesel and electric engines, which pale in comparison to the stately bullet shaped WG engine as it rolled majestically on to the platform, spewing and spitting steam angrily like the mythical dragon. Gone are the huge, old style retiring rooms with their four poster beds, copper vessels and giant bathtubs in capacious attached bathrooms. Gone are the railway refreshment rooms of yore which matched the best hotels in town in their own specialities. Gone are most of the metre gauge and narrow gauge tracks.
Yet the Railways must remain, the Railways must grow and prosper, as they have become the lifeblood of India, a uniting factor that has spawned generations of literary works, paintings, culture. New ways have to be found to protect and preserve this great institution, which means far more to the Indian people than just objects that run on wheels on ageing tracks.
The facts and views in the article are those of the writer.