Democracy and popular will


The journey of Indian Railways


Governments tend to have an institutional approach to bad news. The first hope is that the problem will resolve itself if we ignore it long enough. The second is what might be called the long ball solution: kick the problem forward and keep doing so until it becomes some other minister’s problem.

That surely is the only explanation for the manner in which successive governments have driven one great inheritance from the British Raj into decay: Indian Railways. It is perfectly true that the British created the railways for their strategic and trade interests. But in the process they laid out a nationwide infrastructure and set up a management system that became the life-flow of independent India, a magnificent transport network serving the people, nourishing the economy and creating the linkages that gave real meaning to the concept of unity.

A democracy is driven by popular will. Indian Railways in a free country went where citizens wanted to travel. For the five decades, until the air was released from bondage to one airline, railways offered journeys of discovery as it introduced people from every corner, with different languages and cultures, to one another. It was also the pulse of the economy: a steel mill no longer had to be near iron ore. It transported food at a time when patches of our nation were still mired in outbreaks of seasonal starvation. It is sometimes said, not entirely in jest, that Bollywood has done more for Indian unity than any government. While no one should underestimate the force of mass media, our railways have done more with trains that puffed and steamed through the 1950s and 1960s and then powered through the succeeding decades.

The decline began when popular began to surrender to populism in government. I shall name no names since we tend to offer more disrespect to some of the dead than they probably deserve, but our railways began to collapse when politicians turned this marvellous, almost romantic institution into a conduit for petty favours to constituents and constituencies. Hiring became a grace-and-favour benediction. Instead of serving the people, railways began to serve the politicians.

The day of a railway budget, once an important event in Parliament’s calendar, drifted into self-mockery. Ministers made optimum use of a sham formula. While the railways slipped into terminal illness, they set up an aspirin stall as medicine, hoping that if they could disguise the pain no one would notice the malady. This was accompanied by a display of Diwali firecrackers in the shape of promises, mostly illusory. It was all a bit of a Barmecide’s feast, with citizens invited to a pretend banquet where nothing was served but everyone smacked their lips and burped. It would be unfair to call every minister a Barmecide, but many were. Two names on the positive side of the ledger also come to mind: Madhavrao Scindia, who brought fair and understanding to the single railway budget he presented; and Dinesh Trivedi, who tried but could do very little since his hand were tied quite sharply.

The challenge before Suresh Prabhu was very obvious: he was required not only to stop the decay but to reverse the rot. He took the helm when deterioration was sliding towards disintegration. He had to improve his product, and do it at a pace which was unprecedented, across coach, bogey, train, tracks, service quality, systems and stations. There was a problem wherever you looked. There is little point now recalling the horror stories of the UPA regime; people elect governments to solve problems, not to moan about the past. If the previous government was not awful why would they have changed it? Even Prabhu’s worst critics will admit that quality of service and environment is on the upswing. A critical measure of his success will be the transformation of 400 railway stations into small economic hubs across hundreds of towns.

The more difficult challenge is transformation through fresh investment and induction of world class trains on high density routes. Those who think that a high speed train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad is unfair or elitist should remember that when electrification began, it did not begin everywhere all at once. The railways are a huge enterprise, and investments will have to be massive. They will need to be sourced largely from abroad; Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done the spadework with nations like Japan but there is much heavy lifting to be done till a train starts moving.

The point of course is that at long last Indian Railways is moving in the right direction: fast forward, rather than very fast backward.


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