|Rediff India Abroad Home | All the sections|
Rail minister's costly, unviable project
R C Acharya | February 24, 2003
Having won laurels for his munificence in the cow belt by setting up five new and highly controversial railway zones, Nitish Kumar turned his attention southward.
He recently laid the foundation stone for a brand new administrative block for South Western Railway at Hubli. Two months ago, he had a new East Coast Railway zone at Bhubaneswar.
With this, the tally of new railway zones comes to seven. All of them have been carved out of the existing nine zones. None of them are likely to generate an iota of additional traffic.
They will, however, undoubtedly end up adding to the already bloated workforce of the 1.7 million-strong behemoth.
As expected, the seven new zones have been unable to function from day one. Only the officers -- who have no alternative but to follow orders -- have moved to the headquarters of the new zones but few of the supporting staff have budged from their existing locations.
The minister's assurance that no new staff will be inducted has put the whole exercise in limbo.
To make matters worse, a local court has prohibited staff from other zones being inducted into the East Central Railway zone at Hajipur.
This will ensure that new people will be recruited locally, thereby setting the dangerous precedent of advocating job reservations for sons of the soil.
A public interest petition filed in the Supreme Court by groups of retired railway officers -- including past chairmen of the Railway Board, the Federation of Railway Officers Association and the two recognised labour unions -- is yet to come up for an early hearing.
Meanwhile, the Promotee Officer's Federation and the Railway Protection Force Association have become interveners in a special leave petition, throwing in their lot with the new zones.
Following the Hubli publicity blitz Kumar is set to woo the south some more with a Rs 460-crore (Rs 4.60 billion) handout to electrify the 951 km Pune-Guntakal-Renigunta section. This is part of the fourth leg of the highly publicised golden quadrilateral.
But there are problems. This section hardly falls in the same league. It has traffic levels that can only be handled by doubling the lines. More than two-thirds of the lines are still single, and doubling could take about a decade to complete, provided adequate funds are available.
With a traffic density of only 14 goods and 10 passenger trains, the rate of return is estimated to be minus 20 per cent. This could result in an annual loss of Rs 57 crore (Rs 570 million).
But Kumar seems unfazed by all this. Even the concerns expressed by the traffic directorate and general managers for the Central and South Central Railways over the adverse impact this could have didn't move him to change his plans.
About half-a-dozen interchange points spread over the 951 km stretch would require making changes in traction, thereby considerably slowing down goods and passenger trains.
Moreover, on single line sections, gains under electric traction are low -- unless the trains achieve speeds nearer to maximum permissible speeds of rolling stock. However, this is not possible, considering the track conditions and signalling systems.
In 1996, a proposal in this regard was debated and rejected by the Railway Board. The board was wary of adding to its long list of financially unviable projects, that accounted for most its Rs 35,000 crore (Rs 350 billion) backlog.
Later attempts under the BOLT (Build, Operate, Lease and Transfer) scheme also failed because nobody was willing to risk its money.
But in a bid to woo the south, Kumar is determined to brush aside all opposition and announce this multi-million-rupee bonanza in the forthcoming budget. It seems he wants to establish his credentials as someone who cares about the southern states as much as he does about Bihar.
Adding to the Rs 35,000 crore backlog announced by various Railway ministers over the last decade, the prime minister recently announced a Rs 15,000 crore (Rs 150 billion) package for two new bridges in the north, multi-tracking critical sections on the golden quadrilateral, and other urgently needed projects.
Besides, in view of the recent spate of rail accidents, a separate Rs 17,000 crore (Rs 170 billion) fund has been announced for replacing overaged tracks, rolling stocks and signalling equipment on the 64,000 km long network.
The bill comes to Rs 67,000 crore (Rs 670 billion), more than twice the Railway's annual turnover -- reason enough for a hefty increase in passenger and freight tariffs in the forthcoming Rail Budget.
Unfortunately, Divestment Minister Arun Shourie has not been able to sell his profit making public sector enterprises, which could have helped finance these projects. So, as usual, the burden will fall on the common man.
"Gentlemen, I am a banker and at heart a businessman," said the late T A Pai, the only non-politician Railway minister almost three decades ago, in his opening remarks to the Railway Board's mandarins.
Coming from the Konkan region, his priorities were not to set up a new 'west coast railway' or a new train to Mangalore. "We must make optimum use of the assets which we have."
"I understand a large number of wagons appear to be not road worthy, with leaky roofs as being a constant source of complaint. Please do whatever needs to be done but I must have them fit for loading as fast as possible," were his clear-cut orders.
Unfortunately, Pai did not stay long enough to make much impact on the nation's economic lifeline.
In the 56 years of its existence since independence, only two other Railway ministers were honestly committed to making the Railways an efficient transport system providing services at the lowest possible unit cost -- Madhav Rao Scindia and Madhu Dandavate.
Unfortunately, Scindia is dead and Dandavate is in the political wilderness and is unable to keep up with the wheeling and dealings that are needed to survive.The writer is former member, Railway Board