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Mainstream, VOL LII No 29, July 12, 2014

New Sojourn

Monday 14 July 2014, by Amna Mirza

India is heralded for a new sojourn. The new Railway Minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda recently tabled the Railway Budget which is said to herald a new era in the realm of transport in India. It is being pegged as shunning populism and moving forward towards consolidation and modernisation. What justifies this notion is the move to moot Foreign Direct Investment in suburban rail corridors, stations, revamping the reservation system, public-private partner-ship for rail projects, work stations in select trains on payment, branded food on trains, amongst others.

Looking at the proposals, bouquets and brickbats are following alike. One cannot gloss over the fact that the Railways in India are facing problems of fund shortage, lack of technology, high cost of operations. The proposals in the new Budget plan to make the Railways action-oriented and commercially viable. However, the base of the desired action is far from any concrete and sustainable vision. Mere good economics does not guarantee well-being of the society.

The idea of allowing private players is not new. Even the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government had suggested it; yet the peculiarity of parliamentary democracy made the current ruling alliance trample over it. In this aspect of sellout to private sector and compromise of public interest, sadly it is the common man who bears all the brunt. The new feature of public private partnership (PPP) model, does not present any strategy on issues like how to deal with operating costs, moderni-sation, viability amongst others. It is easy to criticise populism but a mere hands-up approach towards a role of state vis-a-vis markets, stands short of sustainability and balancing criteria needed by the political forces in a democracy.

Profitability and viability cannot be a substitute excuse by the state in fulfilling its role towards the people. The budgetary aspect in this regard is skewed towards the capitalist forces at the expense of the common man, which surely makes the case for a plan that lacks the mission in terms of its aim.

India is hailing in a single-party system, which has come after a long spell of coalition regime since 1989. The trajectory of global forces having an interface with the local cannot be ignored, which is the contextual reality of present times. Viewed from this perspective, the way the Railway Budget ignores States like Kerala, West Bengal, Odisha, does not augur well for the federal ethos of the nation. A strong Centre does not merit bypassing the needs of the States where the ruling party is not in power. It is easy to call it tit-for-tat for the political vindictive reactions of the past. However, the colossal mandate tendered by the Indian citizenry pan- India, was to usher in a new governance realm, and not indulge in one State-centric bias.

Policy plans do not exist in a vacuum. Looking at the way how the Railways in India have acquired as a colonial legacy, with a hierarchical and feudal structure, puts a big question-mark on whether the new inputs being pondered will succeed or not. The innovative yardsticks being suggested have not been supplemented by the time-framework of completion, which makes it a half-hearted exercise.

This puts the Indian polity at crossroads. On the one hand, there are promises like safety of passengers, review stoppage aspects of rail, online reservation, while on the other hand, there are grand ideas of bullet trains. In incre-asing the private investment in Railways, the daunting task that lies is how to balance our feeble railway coaches with technocratic bullet trains. Without ushering in participation from the grassroots, devoid of any discipline across the length and breadth of the system, these things shall not make sense.

The new Rail Budget opens the Pandora’s box of getting an interface of the Railways as a public entity working with the private sector. It is surely good in intent but this needs to stand upto the challenges of putting the scattered cards together in relation to structure, system, end users and, above all, the investors. 

Dr Amna Mirza is an Assistant Professor, University of Delhi.

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