New culture in the Railways Ministry

| | in Oped

By decentralising decision-making process and ushering in transparency, Suresh Prabhu has rid Rail Bhavan of hangers-on forever eager to make a quick buck

Believe it or not, the Ministry of Railways, which used to be a coveted portfolio amongst political heavyweights for the last two decades, and for which allies in the earlier coalitions staked their claims, is not the same any more.

All thanks to Minister for Railways Suresh Prabhu, who has been given an uphill task of resurrecting Indian Railways. However, this task does not involve just innovative financial jugglery, as had been done by one of his worthy predecessors, but a 1.4 million-strong behemoth has now embarked on a pragmatic path with some major initiatives bereft of populism.

Mr Prabhu’s maiden Railway Budget this year featured not a single new train or a new project. This disappointed many of his political allies, as the introduction of new projects and trains had been their hallmark. Previously, hundreds of projects and trains were announced, unmindful of the fact that, with the introduction of new trains, railway tracks would get clogged. They would not even think if there were sufficient funds to finance the new projects that would cost over one lakh crore rupees — all stuck in the pipeline.

With Mr Prabhu assuming office, gone are the hordes of MPs and MLAs of all political hues, who would throng the corridors of Rail Bhavan, eager to get a share of the railways’ vast resource for their respective constituencies. Moreover, with Mr Prabhu having delegated all his powers for multi-crore investments, private sector honchos are conspicuous of their absence around his office.

Bereft of political baggage and of the need to collect party fund, Mr Prabhu has zeroed in on the key issues that have prevented the railways from being the engine of economic growth, while it steadily lost freight to the road sector over the last two decades.

In a bid to channelise alternative sources for investment, Mr Prabhu has made efforts for evacuation of coal and iron ore. This will contribute heavily to the freight business. It will prove to be a win-win situation for the railways, as various State Governments, in order to boost their economy, are eager to finance more than the mandatory 50 per cent.

Moreover, by entrusting these projects to Indian Railways own in-house entities viz, Ircon International Limited, Rail Vikas Nigam Limited, Rail India Technical and Economic Service and Konkan Railway Corporation, Mr Prabhu has ensured time-bound execution.

Reportedly, the Detailed Project Report, which used to take months, if not years, is ready for more than 50 per cent of the projects. Simultaneously, joint ventures have been formed with Coal India Limited, which is seeking evacuation of coal. State Governments are ensuring speedy environmental and other clearances, to help remove any local impediments, so that projects can be executed as early as possible.

With a dismal operating ratio hovering near 92 per cent, only eight paise is available out of every rupee earned to be spent on such new works. Finding new sources, other than the traditional central budgetary support, was imperative. This prompted Mr Prabhu to tap on the Life Insurance Corporation. Mr Prabhu's perseverance paid off with them, as they have agreed to commit a whopping Rs1.5 lakh crore for the railways over the next five years.

With over 11,000 unmanned level crossings, instances of a road vehicle unwittingly crossing a railway track while a train is crossing, is not rare, especially in the rural areas. Apart from loss of life, such incidents cause major disruption in the movement of trains and result in poor punctuality.

While manning of unmanned level crossings will hike the already massive railway wage bill, building road over-bridges will cost Rs40 crore apiece, and this will be a major burden, even if States contributed the mandatory 50 per cent of the cost.

Mr Prabhu is a man in a hurry. He is intent to bring critical changes in Indian Railways, with far-reaching and positive impacts. The Railways Minister will need all the luck to make his vision of an efficient, dynamic and user-friendly organisation capable of meeting the aspirations of the 1.2 billion it serves, come true. He is doing the right things. But he needs the support of a cross-section of the people to make the dreams come true.

(The writer is a former Member, Railway Board)

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