New Era for Indian Railways

Indian Railways, a painful saga of neglect, ineptitude and massive corruption, is entering a phase of partial privatization. Niti Aayog   has come up with the proposal and a nod has come for privatization from the Modi government. The plan is to allow private entities to run their trains on some 100 routes across states. A pilot project of this kind had been given the green signal last year when the Lucknow-Delhi Tejas Express started its run under the label of the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC).

A gift of the British Raj, Indian Railways was an efficient and profit-making entity till a few decades ago. With governments hesitating to raise passenger fares to meet populist demands – revenue from which formed the bulk – and the more lucrative freights segment steadily lost out to the private roadways. The Railways had little funds for development and modernization. Old rakes, wheels disengaging from trains and causing accidents, and several other problems persisted in the railways for many years. Failure to change or maintain old tracks led to mishaps as also curbed speed. India’s express trains run on an average speed of 60 km/hr while, ages past the Bullet era, Maglev trains in China today claim a speed of 600 plus per hour. China’s latest trains run on Magnetic Levitation technology and floats on tracks, not run on them. PM Modi came up with the Bullet Train project in 2014, but it is still facing serious odds at the implementation stage. India failed on most fronts in the railways sector and hence its time the private sector is given a chance to run parallel services and ensure competition.

Considering the lethargy with which the Indian establishments function today, a safe guess is that, over a period of time, the entire railway sector could lose out to private entities which will charge ahead with a new sense of dynamism. On the flip side, this could also mean hefty hike in ticket rates. The poor and ordinary folks will, thus, be out of their comfort zones when it comes to rail travel. This too is a matter of serious concern.

Under the circumstances, it would be advisable that subsidized modes of travel by the Railways be continued, rather than dispensed with even in the long run. A nation of 1.3 billion population – of mostly poor people—cannot afford the luxury that the private sector could offer. In other words, privatization in the railway sector cannot be wholesale, but limited.

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