Mumbai rail mess shows how off-track the Indian Railways is

Our politicians play ducks and drakes with the lives of millions of passengers travelling on this vast rail network either on work or holiday

On Monday former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi, while speaking at an event organised by Moneylife Foundation, had said that there is an urgent need to modernize the railway system it so that people can travel safely. Looking at the scene in Mumbai in the past two days, we can say rail travellers in India are certainly in the high-risk category that no insurance can possibly cover.

The trains they are travelling can get derailed any time en route and the Rail Mantri is least concerned what happens to the travelling aam janata. He’s only carrying out the diktat of the party boss. The prime minister, who praised the budget after it was presented by the then minister in office, feared for the withdrawal of support by the Trinamool Congress and meekly favoured them by agreeing to change the Rail Mantri who was under orders to roll back the fare hike and jeopardize passenger safety. Each of the Members of Parliament (MPs), including the PM, seem to ignore that they have sworn to carry out their duties without fear or favour!

Mr Trivedi put it in better words. He said, “The Parliament may not represent real India and may be out of touch of reality. Instead the common people out there knew more about the state of affairs”. Unfortunately, after increasing passenger fares in the rail budget, Mr Trivedi has to relinquish his post.
The Indian Railways constitute the fourth largest network in the world after those of the US, Russia and China. Our Railways covering an area of over 65,000 km, runs more than 12,000 passenger and 7,000 freight trains from as many as 7,500 stations and ferries 30 million passengers and 2.8 million tonnes of freight, every day.

Yet our politicians play ducks and drakes with the lives of millions of passengers travelling on this vast rail network either on work or holiday. Constantly occurring accidents are reported routinely and nothing is heard of the enquiry reports that are announced every time there is a major incident.

The Railway Budget 2012 proposed some modest increases in passenger fares, by mobilizing an incremental Rs5,000 crore to reduce the financial pressure by seeking to bring down the sharply deteriorating operating ratio and generating resources for implementing vital safety measures, network expansion and modernization.

The five unions representing 1.4 million railway employees across the country supported the increase and pointed out that it is absolutely necessary to ensure safe, secure and smooth journey for the Indian travellers and essential for financial stability and sustainability of the Indian Railways. Any roll-back without a matching subsidy from the general exchequer will push it on the brink of collapse, said the letter from the employee federations to the prime minister. They had sought higher budgetary support from the finance ministry last year. Besides, there is no opposition from passengers who only demand better services.

Trinamool Congress is the only party, a coalition partner in the UPA government, at that, to so vociferously oppose the increase in passenger fares on the frivolous grounds that it runs contrary to the DNA of their party and simply non est!

These nasty antics evidence the lack of concern of the party supremo also known as Didi, to the tremendous harm their opposition can cause to the safety and stability of the entire Railway system. It is sad that all her party members merely mouth the same reason without applying their minds except for rebel MP and singer Kabir Suban who rightly supported the fare hike in the 2012 Rail Budget—“The fare hike was inevitable. The railway minister has not hiked the fare to fill his own pocket. Crucial issues like railway safety and passenger amenities are directly related to the fare hike.”

The railway ministry for long has been held hostage by successive railway ministers, including the Trinamool Party chief, who didn’t hike fares simply to retain the middle-class vote bank that has caused enormous harm to the sustainability and safety elements.

The railway ministry was earlier held by another maverick Lalu Prasad Yadav who came out with hare-brained concepts that later on have been proven to be misguided and wrong too. It did bring him a lot of kudos from the international B-Schools who glorified him without proper scrutiny. We have heavily paid for his antics which ought to have been attended to all these years but rightly rectified by now.

Replying to a question related with Mr Yadav’s famous ‘turnaround’ of the Railways, Mr Trivedi said, “There is no proper accounting system in the Railways. The corporate accounting system of profit and loss is just not there. So depreciation can be categorised and that is what had happened. It was the accounting system that was used to show this ‘turnaround’ of Indian Railways by Mr Yadav.”

The Parliament and the government ought to get the Railway Budget discussed at length and passed in its original form without the only change of the rollback and not succumb to the pressures of Trinamool Congress. It must be remembered that the ministers take oath to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution and do right to all manner of people without fear or favour. The MPs across the board cannot be pushed around by narrow party diktats or compulsions—it tantamount to violating their oath.  Passenger safety has to be paramount.

(Nagesh Kini is a chartered accountant turned activist.)

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