New Delhi: Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu confirmed his own ouster from the Ministry in a tweet that read, “Thanks to all 13 lakh-plus rail family for their support, love, goodwill. I will always cherish these memories with me. Wishing you all a great life.” With Prabhu’s exit, Piyush Goyal, who was elevated to Cabinet rank on Sunday, will take over as the 39th Railway Minister of India – the ninth in the last eight years.
Railways, many believe, is a ‘jinxed’ ministry. The fact that there have been eight ministers in Rail Bhawan over the last eight years is testament to how difficult it is to hold down the job. While some quit in the wake of devastating rail accidents, others were plagued by corruption scandals and a few exited while pursuing greater political goals. But the scale of work in the ministry is enough to overwhelm anybody. For the new Minister for Railways, the challenges will be immense.
The first challenge before the new minister will be reestablishing trust in the railways’ safety arrangements. The recent spate of accidents under Suresh Prabhu has brought that under question. While Prabhu had initiated some changes, such as replacing old coaches with newer, safer ones and hiring more trackmen to manually patrol the tracks, a much larger exercise will be needed to restore faith fully. Many maladies, such as trackmen serving as domestic help in the houses of senior Railway officers, still persist.
While Railway Ministers in the past have offered sops to their electorate in the form of new trains, these “bonanzas” mean that routine maintenance and track renewal – an essential part of safety – is compromised on. While Prabhu had ordered the replacement of old ICF coaches with newer LHC ones, experts believe it will take anywhere between 25-40 years for them to be totally replaced.
The pace of modernisation and reforms within railways will be another major challenge. While Prabhu had got the ball rolling, much more work needs to be done. The Bibek Debroy Committee, E Sreedharan Committee, Anil Kakodkar Committee and Sam Pitroda Committee have all suggested sweeping changes in the Indian Railways. For the new minister, the speedy implementation of these reforms will be key.
In the 21st Century, the Railways operate with 20th Century management practices and infrastructure. According to Railway Expert Akhileshwar Sahay, the skill level of over 50% Railway workers is “abysmally poor” and obsolete maintenance practices of the British era still persist.
The organisation of the Railway structure itself is becoming a challenge according to Sahay. He added, “At an operational level, the Railway is organised in the most sub-optimal manner. A decade back, to improve operational efficiency, Chinese Railway abolished an entire tier in one go. Contrarily, the number of zonal railway headquarters and divisional railway headquarters has grown haphazardly in our country and the sole criteria of creating a new zone and division has been the political expediency and whims of the minister in-charge. Whenever an accident took place, Railway Board honchos surrendered meekly to safeguard their personal interest. And the obvious result is that the Railways, which was once the pride of the nation, today has seen a fall — freight has moved to high-capacity trucks on upgraded highways, and passengers have moved to buses and air. The decline now is both in percentage and absolute terms.”
He further lashed out at the “departmental structure” of the railways. “Indian Railways, from top to bottom, is organised at departmental lines with overarching departmental loyalty, much to the detriment of the organisational interest. Three basic necessities of a forward looking transport organization — commercial orientation, consumer focus and zero defect orientation (zero tolerance to incidents) are missing at all levels.”
According to Sahay, the role of the Railway Board is becoming increasingly obstructionist. He said the board has become “bloated unwieldy, and an overarching controller”. A CAG report tabled in Parliament had pointed to serious lapses in railway catering. It even went on to say the food being served in the railways was “unfit for human consumption”.
If Goyal somehow manages to run the railways ministry without any major accidents and overhaul the system completely, there is still the task of getting the Modi Government’s ambitious Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train project off the ground.