Bullet trains are not pragmatic in India – Com. Shiva Gopal Mishra

Shiv Gopal Mishra is general secretary of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation. Altogether 1.1 million of the 1.5 million railway workers are members of the AIRF. It has affiliated unions in all the 16 zonal railways and production units. Mr Mishra feels the political leadership crippled the railways financially by not allowing a fare hike for almost 15 years. In a freewheeling interview to Alok Kumar he explained why the Bullet Train should not be the priority for the Indian Railways now and how the Bibek Debroy panel’s report has been tailored according to the PMO’s wishes.

How do you assess the state of affairs in Indian Railways under the new dispensation?

Indian Railways is like a giant elephant which moves at its own pace and any effort to make it an aeroplane is bound to invite trouble. Whenever a new political leadership takes over, all sorts of fanciful ideas are floated by it to gain political mileage. Radical changes in Indian Railways are just impossible in view of its geographical expanse and the volume of passenger traffic it carries every day. It is unique and cannot be compared to other big railway networks of the world where trains are used mainly for carrying freight. Indian Railways, on the other hand, carries about 2.5 crore passengers every day. Ninety five per cent of the country’s total volume of passenger traffic is dependent in one way or the other on railways.

Are you pointing towards the Bullet train proposal?

Yes. The effort being made for having a Bullet train is one such un-pragmatic idea. The cost estimated by a recent study conducted by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for a Bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmadabad is a whopping Rs.98,000 crore. Instead we can make Indian Railways much faster and more efficient than it is today by doubling the single line routes and adding an additional line to the congested double line routes.

But this government is not the first to talk about the Bullet Train.

The previous governments were only talking about it but this government is vigorously pursuing it. In fact for this government it has become a status symbol. It thinks entering the club of Bullet train countries will boost its image tremendously. We cannot compare ourselves with China whose economy is three times bigger than ours.

Bullet train in China is basically a technology given by Germany which also agreed to lay tracks for it on the condition that it will have a share in the income. Here, JICA is saying it will give us a loan at 4 per cent annual interest rate. Japan is also insisting that we will have to buy 40 per cent of total parts and implements to be used in the Bullet trains from it. It would mean that Japan will not only get interest on the loan given to us but the technology and implements they will compulsorily sell to us will create employment in Japan.

What I am saying is that having a Bullet train is not a bad idea but it should not be our priority. Strengthening the existing infrastructure would be more beneficial for us. However, the Railway Board is in the final stage of negotiation to give a go-ahead to the construction of the Bullet train. DPR study is complete.

What is your take on the interim report of the committee headed by Bibek Debroy?

Bibek Debroy is a nice person but he has tailored the report according to the wishes of the government. In fact, he had admitted to me that the Prime Minister’s Office was monitoring the report. Besides, he told us that the PMO wanted the panel to submit the report well before the final date of submission given to it. The tenure of the panel was till 31 August but in haste it submitted the report on 11 June, six days earlier than the date it had itself fixed after being pressured by the PMO. You can imagine how hurriedly the report was submitted at the direction of the PMO.  To a great extent he has obliged the government in incorporating its view point. As a result, the final report is substantially different from the interim report. The report is to encourage privatisation in the Railways.

This report is an indicator of things to come in the Railways. The government in the name of bringing investment into the Railways intends to make it out of bounds for common people. In the past taking advantage of similar reports, Railways of other countries had handed over their operations to private players.

But what is wrong with privatisation?

What happened to Railways in Britain after privatisation is a glaring example of its ill-effects. On the instruction of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the British Railway was privatised. Not only did passenger fares and freight rates shoot up unreasonably, but efficiency, for which it was known, had to be compromised. After privatisation, deterioration became apparent in signalling system, quality of coaches and the tracks. On account of this, passengers’ safety became the biggest casualty. Finally, in order to regain efficiency, British Rail had to be made a corporation under the government. British Rail was privatised between 1994 and 1997.

In advanced European countries like France and Germany, the railway system is government-owned. Interestingly, countries where railway is not the mainstay of transportation have mostly gone for privatisation. But hike in passenger fares and freight was accompanied by the overall decrease in safety standards and passenger amenities in almost all these countries. I had told the Debroy panel that this talk of privatisation of railways today is happening at the instance of World Bank and IMF.

How much has the panel accommodated railwaymen’s views?

On our vehement opposition, the panel had to go back on its recommendation to do away with compensatory appointment after the death of an employee or after their voluntary retirement on account of disability.

What are your thoughts on the proposed restructuring of railways with the objective of modernising it?

I fully agree with the Debroy panel on one aspect – that the restructuring of Railways is to be done to stop inter-departmental squabbles that result in delay in decision-making and project implementation. The present Railway set-up should be parcelled out among different corporations and each should have an exclusive domain under it such as infrastructure, rolling stocks and logistics, etc. Stores, accounts and personnel may be merged into one entity. Services may also be divided into two categories, technical and non-technical. If restructuring is for the sake of modernisation in work culture, technological upgradation and efficiency in decision-making we are with the government.

How do you assess the current financial position of the Railways?

Railways’ earnings are growing. The target fixed in the Budget is also met with. Therefore, there are vested interests spreading disinformation about financial crisis in the Railways. They are doing it to push Railways on the path of privatisation. IR is today among the four railways in the world that carry more than a million tonnes of goods each year.

A similar misinformation campaign is going on with the objective to hand over profit-making trains like Rajdhani and Shatabdi on busy routes to private parties. Why are private parties not interested in running ordinary trains on branch lines with lesser profit margins? We want Railways not to part with the expected traffic growth in the next 50 years. Anything additional, it can hand over to private parties.

In the last few years so many committees have been set up to examine the health of the Railways but the recommendations given by them are gathering dust. Why it is so?

Because their recommendations are not implementable. For example, Rakesh Mohan committee had said Railways need Rs.70,000 crore for modernisation. But we asked him how Railways will be able to repay that whopping amount taken as loan. Suresh Prabhu also says money is no problem as we have taken loan from LIC and other commercial banks are also prepared to give us loan.  But he does not provide a road map for investment of that money so that it can be returned with interest.

Of course, we need money to strengthen our existing infrastructure but that should come through budgetary support.

The Railways is subsidising Rs.26,000 crore on passenger fares. If the Government of India agrees to return that money that would suffice to improve its infrastructure.

What about the political leadership of the Railways in the last one decade not allowing passenger fare hike?

They have done immense damage to the financial health of the Railways. Today consumers want to pay railways more for improved services but politicians are not prepared to do so for their narrow political ends. We have always supported an independent Rail Tariff Authority which takes care of the interest of both consumers as well as Railways. At the rate of 7 per cent inflation per annum during the last 15 years which saw almost negligible fare hike and the Railways lost an estimated Rs.1.36 lakh crore. This amount could have been ploughed back for building Railways’ infrastructure.

Moreover, IR is spending about Rs.2500 crore each year on unviable non-implementable railway projects announced under political pressure. These projects are only on paper but for that, railways spends money on maintaining offices and paying salaries to employees. These projects are of over one lakh crore and need to be scrapped immediately.

bullet trains are not pragmatic