A welcome facelift for Indian Railways

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Indian Railways (IR), the fourth largest globally, needs to be overhauled massively. There is no denying that the IR which is expected to carry the burden of both passenger and cargo traffic, has turned a wee bit redundant with structural issues and outdated technology and is extremely rigid. If this continues, the Railways would become more of a burden like Air India rather than the best and most cost-effective transporter. It took 25 years for the Railway Board to decide on keeping food warm for passengers by deploying hot cases. Another 25 long years passed by even to move towards unifying railways under one umbrella service. Last week’s cabinet decision to merge eight different services of railway officers under one management organisation is a milestone in itself. This could be the starting point to break silos in which different departments like electrical, mechanical, traffic and materials management work at cross purposes.

Even as this restructuring is welcome, what’s important is to reorganise the Railway Board that has become incorrigible, devolves its power down below and break into fiefdoms of members. Mere reduction in board members from eight to four, re-designating chairman into chief executive officer, making him or her all-powerful will not do. Several instances in the past have rendered the railway minister helpless in ushering in reforms. Case in point was former minister Suresh Prabhu whose move to restructure railways met with stiff resistance not only at lower levels but even the board. The Board thrives in chaos and misery inflicted on passengers, businesses and cargo movers. This mindset needs to change if it has to become a lean and competitive organisation as envisaged by Railway Minister Piyush Goyal.

Apart from making the Board accountable sans corruption, turning production entities into corporate bodies would work if it is not sabotaged from within. Unless low-cost capital from domestic and global sources are mobilised, there’s no way the government can fund from its scarce budget resources production and services. Several functions could be outsourced, merged and even phased. Leveraging technology to bring about operational integration could be a game-changer. Learning from reforms and constant evolution of railways as net revenue earners in countries like Japan, China, Germany and France should guide Indian Railways into the future. Treating passengers travelling in any class as its clients who bring in revenue is perhaps too much to ask from the ‘babudom’ that act like a demigod. Taking the initiative to forge private partnerships may not come easily from the railway leadership that lacks vision. Otherwise, public-private partnerships could have been a roaring success by now. There is so much to change and very little that has happened till date.

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