Will the Modi government be able to turn around India’s ramshackle, crash prone, loss making Railways? It is a tough ask. There are too many matters to sort out, not least dysfunctional toilets inside trains.
Major rail stations in the country look, smell and are maintained like unkempt urinals. Buying a ticket online is as difficult as admissions in Delhi University. There is 100% chance of failure.
Frequent rail crashes are caused due to basic negligence, lack of track maintenance, unmanned crossings and reliance on outdated manual signaling systems. If a train driver happens to catnap, like Rahul Gandhi the other day in Parliament probably due to watching soccer world cup at night, and misses a red light, it could jeopardize the lives of hundreds. Gandhi woke up, walked away and trended on Twitter. Many in the train could die.
This happens often. Indeed, the dirty toilets in Indian trains are symptomatic of the overall decay of the transport system patronized by millions every day. I remember visiting my village in the 70s. There was no method of flushing or sewage disposal.
A pit was cleaned manually every day by the zamadarni or sweeper. If one happened to be using the loo while it was being emptied, she screamed at you to stop. The process was degrading both for the zamadarni and the user of the toilet. My village has moved on, but Indian trains continue to use out dated squat pots. The cleansing process is worse. The excreta are ejected onto the tracks, even at the stations. Unlike my village in the 70s, there is nobody to clean the human waste on rail tracks except armies of flies.
India’s rail system is a glaring example of the destructive power of narrow and populist politics made worse by rampant corruption. Passengers are treated no less than the rats and cockroaches that infest the stations and trains. The last well meaning Railway Minister was perhaps Madhav Rao Scindia in the 80s when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister of India.
Modi’s maiden Rail budget sets out the agenda for change — Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects, focus on safety, latest track and signaling systems, cleanliness and sanitation, passenger comfort, revamped stations, bullet trains and tickets that can be booked online rather than bought from touts who game the system.
The challenge is to transform India’s heavily loss making and unsafe rail network into a financially sustainable system equally accessible by the poor, middle classes, elderly and rich. It is possible.
The Delhi metro, run by the state government, is an example, wherein a high earning executive, a peripatetic software engineer and a daily wager can rub shoulders while headed to their respective destinations, immersed in their cell phones, in air conditioned comfort. Commuters do not read nowadays, not even newspapers. FM radio headlines suffice.
Many of our airports have been revamped to international levels. Indian kids no longer squeal in delight on seeing walk-alators for the first time in their life at airports in Singapore or Hong Kong. One can enjoy a cup of coffee, quietly read a book or surf the Internet at an airport.
This needs to be mentioned. Try these simple acts at the Rail station. Forget about the cacophony, just the stink and lack of hygiene will kill you, if you can manage get yourself a cup of coffee, that is.
Modi’s Rail budget has taken the smart route of private and overseas capital playing a big role in the proposed revamp.
This is important due to political limitation of raising passenger fares and freight rates already quoting very high to subsidize loss making passenger trains.
Criticisms about bullet trains are misplaced. The argument that only the affluent are going to patronize these due to high ticket prices is fallacious. Extending such logic one should ban planes and airports in the country that cannot be afforded by the poor.
Connectivity spreads growth that benefits everybody, including local businesses such as transport, eateries, artisans, hotels, kirana stores and more. Importantly, the bullet trains are not going to be financed via tax payer’s money. Capital will be deployed from China, Japan and other regions.
PPP and FDI models have been talked about in the past. But, there is a difference this time. Unlike the ideological muddle of the previous government and Rail ministers who played to regional galleries, Modi is clear about the private source of funding to re-build Indian Railways.
Political will is the key to push large projects to fruition. It adds star value, like Salman Khan or Shahrukh Khan to the commercial success of a Bollywood film.
No doubt those who rule the country can make a difference. Even Manmohan Singh ended India’s global atomic isolation once he set his mind to it.
Unfortunately, he could do no more. Modi’s rail budget has tried to set Indian Railways back on track on paper. It is a good start. The real challenge lies ahead.
(Check out my novel An Offbeat Story)