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Goyal In, Prabhu Out. Will Indian Railways be any Different?

The statistics should scare Piyush Goyal, the 8th minister in past ten years and third in a little more than three years of current NDA government, and you have barely 20 months to perform or perish.

Akhileshwar Sahay |

Updated:September 4, 2017, 5:41 PM IST
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Goyal In, Prabhu Out. Will Indian Railways be any Different?
Piyush Goyal took oath of office at the Rashtrapati Bhawan on Sunday. (News18 Creative)
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On Sunday, 3rd September 2017, after a mega reshuffle of the Union Cabinet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appointed Piyush Goyal as the new Railway Minister. After his spectacular run as Power and Coal Minister, Goyal, who is considered a task master, replaces Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu, who after a spate of recent railway accidents in August had resigned assuming full moral responsibility.

History will, however, be kinder to Prabhu when it reassesses his tenure as railway minister.

He will be remembered as the man who not only dreamt big with unprecedented Rs. 8,50,000 Crore capital expenditure in five years but also tried to stitch the necessary finances for the audacious goal. He will also be remembered for putting a premium on transparency, for expediting the accounting reforms and ushering in some structural changes with a modular selective implementation of Bibek Debroy and E. Sreedharan Committee Reports. These are only a few of his many accomplishments.

The statistics should scare Piyush Goyal, the 8th minister in past ten years and third in a little more than three years of current NDA government, and you have barely 20 months to perform or perish.

Nonetheless, as a lifelong railways man and as a member of the Commentariat ala-affaire railways, I consider it apt to take you to a brief tour of “dangers that lurk ahead your path.”

Let me start with an anecdote, which the then Divisional Railway Manager (DRM), Mysore, narrated to me at the Railways Golf Club at Hubli Karnataka, exactly three decades back in 1987. He said he was very disturbed when a major passenger train accident occurred within his jurisdiction hours after he had taken over as DRM. But as he was getting ready to hand over charge to new DRM, he had a revelation, during his tenure, all DRMs of Southern Railway had more than their adequate quota of train accidents.

Though the DRM had shared this wisdom to me in a light hearted manner then- this plight of a DRM is equally true for a railway minister in chair. So rest assured , so pathetic is the railway infrastructure (fixed and moving), so over worked and clogged is the network that carries 23 million passengers daily on more than 12000 trains and over one billion tonne freight per year, such under-skilled are 50% of the railways staff, and finances of the railways are in such a matter that, if you have to achieve even half the success of what you most recently achieved in power and coal ministry, it would be something.

Make no mistake, Mr. Minister, despite all the best efforts of your predecessor, what you inherit essentially, is a railway system in tatters-“in ICU” to be precise”.

Prabhu in a most recent interview in a leading financial news paper on 22nd July 2017 had this to say — “Railways is on the path of gradual recovery but it still has to be kept in the ICU as it needs to be strong enough”.

Sadly, you will now encounter one more monster as you take over —morale of 13.5 Lakh railway staff has suddenly plummeted to the nadir. Ashwani Lohani, your new chief lieutenant, has rightly said that railways face grave “image perception problem”. He is also right when he says “safety has to be top most priority” and “there will be zero tolerance for corruption”, but I dare say, the principal problem facing Indian Railways is structural and not one of mere image perception.

Accidents are just a symptom. The main issue is cultural, railways being a divided house, a status quoist top bureaucracy and structural deformities that have crept in over decades. Nonetheless, as a lifelong railway man, I firmly believe, it is not over till it is over.

Railways surely need not go Air India way. Despite recent convulsions, a core of the Railways still breathes. What is needed is moving resolutely on a path of survival, revival and then achieving vibrancy. This is a long haul task. Instead of reinventing the wheel traverses on the path set by your recent predecessors and use the wisdom of Bibek Debroy Committee, E. Sreedharan Committee, Dr. Anil Kakodkar Safety Committee and even Sam Pitroda Committee of the previous government.

Focus on the core of railways, neatly cut out the non-core and march ahead, however tortuous the path may be. Instead of running schools, colleges and hospitals in the 21st century and manufacturing coaches and locomotives, Indian Railways need to focus on carrying passengers and goods. There is also crying need for disrupting the business model of the railway itself. Also, a path of the reform and restructuring of the core of the railway business is so humungous it can be done only modularly step by step.

Woes of railways are many. There is no quick fix solution. But start from where Prabhu has left and marched ahead resolutely.

(The author is a railway expert and was formerly an Indian Railway Accounts Service Officer. He was co-opted by Ministry of Railways as part of One Man E- Sreedharan Committee on Railways. Views expressed are personal)
| Edited by: Puja Menon
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