Piyush Goyal, one of the better performing ministers in the Narendra Modi government, has his task cut out. Reforming Indian Railways is what he needs to go diligently about. The Farakka Express derailment on Wednesday near Rae Bareli has led to 7 deaths and injuries to 60 others. Rail accidents that happen every year bring to focus the poor state of infrastructure, an unmanageable gargantuan organisation that has grown haphazardly even as the railway board continues to maintain its stranglehold over it with no intention to ‘reform, transform and perform’. These three buzzwords aired by Modi from time to time comprise the holy mantra for his government. But railways’ performance continues to slide and it has repeatedly let down passengers. It could be said that it is a failed enterprise.
India’s emotional connect with this moribund organisation has sustained it over the years. It needs to be put in critical care now. The vast workforce that survives on passengers and cargo revenue needs to work with precision and dedication to get the railways to deliver. Some of the biggest rail accidents have happened in India. The management, personnel and political leadership have not learned their lessons from past mistakes. The railways reform must begin with disbanding of the Railway Board that is corrupt, inefficient and ridden with groups. Bureaucrats must be kept out and professionals must be handed over the task of running the organisation. Over the years, railway ministers have given up the idea of reforming it. They have succumbed to way shown by the Railway Board. This needs to change immediately.
A professional board of directors with clear-cut responsibilities as a holding company must be at the helm. All the zonal operations must be turned into independent firms under the holding setup. A competitive working environment must dictate functioning of railway companies. If Konkan Railways can become a separate company of sorts why not hive off each railway zone into an independent sustainable enterprise? States can have equity participation in these railway enterprises bound by the holding company. Alternatively, the functional operation of rail networks should dictate the reorganisation. For instance, the minister can think of bringing all Shatabdi or Rajdhani express trains under two different comapnies. Similarly, the bullet trains network should be brought under a special purpose vehicle with equity from bothe states and Centre.
Several committees and high-powered panels have made significant recommendations on re-organising the railway network. Indian Railways should undergo functional and territorial re-organisation into different companies. Only then, will reform be meaningful. That apart, the entire land resources and immovable properties could be brought under a separate entity for management, development and expansion. From railway lines, platforms to the network, there is scope for huge commercial exploitation across the country. The export of railway consultancy services – technical and financial – should be targeted to open new streams of revenues for the company. Rail finances – assets and liabilities – may have to be apportioned to make each zone a professionally managed enterprise that is sustainable and profitable. Modi’s idea of setting up a railway university is a positive idea. It should become the centre for recruiting modern and progressive young railway leaders. Re-training and reorienting the existing workforce at the new university should change the face of Indian Railways. All this needs to be done without losing sight of the societal role that is incumbent upon it. For that to happen, sustainable enterprise models with social objectives at the core will have to be evolved. The organisation needs to be geared up step by step to become part of a multi-model transportation network. It is a tall task that is not easy to achieve but doable.