RAILWAY REFORMS

The Indian Railways, the nation’s largest network of mass and freight transportation and employing as high as 13 lakh hands, is a phenomenon by itself. Fact is also that it failed to grow in a manner that suited the modern times, while the rail networks in several countries in Asia stole a march over us – China and Japan, in particular with their bullet and other high-speed trains.

Successive governments here did not take enough interest in the Railways’ modernization, and the priorities were often misplaced and guided by political interests. In this context, the present move by the Union Government to privatize a part of its massive operations is perhaps a way forward to inject dynamism to this ailing sector.

The government on Wednesday called for qualification proposals from private entities to run modern-style trains on 109 pairs of routes up and down. What is expected is a private investment of Rs 30,000 crore. When private entities step in, chances are also that the fares for both passenger and freight will be higher, unlike the soft corner that governments have in this respect. Governments, in order to gain the goodwill of the public, kept fares low for many years, though the special service fares like tatkal etc are kept high. It is here that a mix of private and public sectors, separately, will be advantageous. There could be different fare structures for IR trains and privately run trains.

The Modi government’s attempt since 2014 to increase the speed of trains and modernize track systems for this purpose, as also to have bullet trains on a pilot project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad have not gone far. Big dreams were unveiled shortly after Modi, but as usual in this country, things are moving at snail’s pace. Governments are comfortable with the slow pace, but the people are hard-pressed. The bullet train project lost its steam after the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government took power in Maharashtra, after the BJP was ousted in the last state polls. Maharashtra halted the project even though both the Centre and Gujarat wanted its completion. What message such wanton actions send out to prospective investors in India is clear to all.

The fact of the matter is also that Indian Railways, with its colonial past, maintained certain dignity in the way it operated. This, even as corruption was massive in its systems from top to bottom. How private players will make a difference to this is something to that needs a close watch.

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