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How Dinesh Trivedi plans to revamp Indian Railways

Last updated on: January 25, 2012 08:57 IST

How Dinesh Trivedi plans to revamp Indian Railways

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Despite a party leader who doesn't seem to put much faith in him and barbs on his first-time ministership, Trivedi is determined to revamp the Indian Railways.

"How did a guy like you end up with someone like her?" I asked Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi.

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Image: Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi.


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He didn't hear the question because his answer was: "I am going to rebuild Indian Railways" (although a ministerial colleague has expressed misgivings about this and said Trivedi's leader, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, is perfectly capable of withdrawing support to the Congress before the Budget session of Parliament just to prevent Trivedi from presenting the Railway Budget).

You can't help feeling sorry for Trivedi. He's like a hare caught in the headlights, says Aditi Phadnis.

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Image: Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee.
Photographs: Reuters.

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On the one side are the blistering put-downs of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee (who, during the debate on foreign direct investment in retail, told the lone vocal dissenter in the meeting, Trivedi, that he should remember he is a first-time minister).

And on the other, the inexplicable faith his leader Banerjee places in sycophants, when she could so easily rely on Trivedi.

That he's a different kind of a politician is clear from the moment you walk into his home.

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Image: Dinesh Trivedi.


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That he's a different kind of a politician is clear from the moment you walk into his home.

To be sure, there are some vases of garish scarlet paper-flowers and a huge elephant that appears to have been crafted from aluminium but made to look like silver, complete with fake rubies and diamonds.

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Image: Dinesh Trivedi.


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But there is evidence of good taste as well: a startlingly well-used CD of M L Vasanthakumari, the Carnatic vocalist, lies on the CD player along with other classical music CDs.

Trivedi confesses that he is a classical music junkie and a trained sitar player.

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Image: Dinesh Trivedi with Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bachchan.


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His Calcutta home was next to Ustad Vilayat Khan's: who was one of India's best sitar players although Ravi Shankar was better known. (As an aside, Khan was awarded the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan and he refused both, declaring the jury musically incompetent to judge him).

Trivedi had a strict father and went to a boarding school in Shimla when he was very young, so you could say his life has been ruled by strong personalities.

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Image: Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT), Japan, Takeshi Maeda meets Dinesh Trivedi.
Photographs: Courtesy, PIB.

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There are lots of pictures on t he wall but two small Vaikuntam-like portraits in simple frames catch the eye. They are not by Vaikuntam but his guru, he says.

There are lots of Buddha statues, a large number of clocks (including a huge one, possibly a reproduction made by French clockmaker Antoine de Praiteau in 1801; if original, it is priceless) and an utterly charming set of three preening red and gold roosters, all wearing bejewelled jootis of the kind worn by wealthy nabobs.

Their vanity makes a statement but also evokes a smile.

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Image: Dinesh Trivedi.
Photographs: Courtesy, PIB.

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Vanity and ego worry Trivedi a lot. You can tell because he mentions the words several times as we talk in the car.

We are speeding to Gurgaon: he's late for an appointment, so we've decided to do coffee in the car.

He says he has no ego, which is why he doesn't understand why leaders are so susceptible to flattery, when in fact they should be ruled by a value system.

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Image: Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi.
Photographs: Courtesy, PIB.

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"All leaders, I find, should beware not their opponents, but their chamchas. Indian politics has to change. We have a feudal system. Those values are everywhere: in business, in political parties... If one aspires to be a leader, one should never consider himself 'boss' but a senior colleague," he says.

He wants to talk about Indian Railways. I provoke him: "What's the point? All that the Indian Railways needs is an increase in fares.

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Image: Tableau of Ministry of Railways passes through the Rajpath during the full dress rehearsal for the Republic Day Parade-2012.
Photographs: Courtesy, PIB.

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And she's not going to let you do that," I say.

"No, no you're wrong," he says, "there are ideological issues, of course, but what Indian Railways needs is modernisation. And I'm going to modernise railways."

Trivedi admits the Railway Budget will have bounty for Bengal. But he is focused on automation that will remove human intervention from crucial areas like safety; and planned growth so that railways contribute two per cent to India's GDP.

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Image: Devotees travel on a crowded passenger train.
Photographs: K K Arora/Reuters.

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"So 10,000 new railway lines for Bengal?" I ask. "Maybe not that many," he smiles.

"Railways understand operations. They don't understand revenues. I am going to offer travellers an alternative to air travel. To that end, I want to double railway lines, modernise safety systems, and spruce up railway stations so that 30 per cent of our revenues comes only from business on stations," Trivedi says.

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Image: A candy seller walks past a suburban train at a railway station in Mumbai.
Photographs: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters.
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"Why can't we have multiplexes, shopping malls and the best brands on railway stations? Why not even duty-free shops? Indian Railways can give an unmatched optic fibre network to the country that is currently dark," he says.

Safety is a big concern, so he has set up two committees headed by people who should understand safety best: nuclear scientists? Kakodkar and Kasturirangan.

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Image: Rag pickers walk along a railway track at the railway station in the northern Indian city of Allahabad.


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Trivedi points out that Japan has the best high-speed trains in the world but hasn't had an accident in 47 years.

"Indian Railways are capable of reaching there," he says.

He's also conscious that more demands are going to be put on freight with the Food Security Bill.

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Image: Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (C) shakes hands with Indian Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi (R).
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters.

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"Why is food so cheap and plentiful in the US? Because food is transported almost totally by freight trains. These trains are sometimes 2-km long. Freight is the backbone of the railway economy."

Brave words. But isn't the crisis in Indian Railways all about freight and the money that isn't coming in? "We will get the money," he says.

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Image: A Tata Motors Nano car is loaded onto a goods train for shipment at Sanand railway station.
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters.

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Sam Pitroda is heading a committee on modernisation.

"We are in the stone age. At the very least, we have to modernise signalling systems so that trains stop automatically when there is danger of collision. Current systems in the railways are capable of this level of automation," he says.

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Image: Railway officials and onlookers stand near damaged railway tracks after a passenger train derailed in Vidhisha district.
Photographs: Reuters.

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But Trivedi throws up a suggestion that is interesting - because he is implying it is currently absent.

"Indian Railways must have a national policy, like defence or external affairs," he says.

Really? What does that mean? "Well," he says, "regardless of change in governments or railway ministers, the policy must continue, it shouldn't change."

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Image: A labourer stands on a goods train loaded with tractors at a railway station on a cold day in Chandigarh.
Photographs: Reuters.

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What he doesn't say is the unbelievable damage done to Indian railways by his predecessors - one of them being his leader.

He explains painstakingly: "Railways perform a social service as well as contribute to the GDP. India can't grow if railways don't grow. How can India claim to grow if railways can't transport food to Bastar? If Bastar doesn't have a railway line? Every decision cannot be with reference to return on investment," he says.

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Image: A new auto rickshaw is unloaded from a goods train at a storage facility at Sanand railway station.
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters.

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Trivedi says he considers his greatest achievement to be the way he has changed the working of the railways' senior management.

"When I came to the ministry, I found they [Railway Board and so on] were working in silos. I changed that, made the working more democratic and created greater synergy among different departments."

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Image: A passenger train that was hijacked arrives at the Daltangunj railway station.
Photographs: Rajesh Kumar Sen/Reuters.

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I raise the "f" word again. What about raising fares?

"I have no hesitation in saying this. My first loyalty is to my country. My second loyalty is to my job - what I've been assigned, in this case the railways. Then comes the rest: party, leader, family. And I don't care if this offends anyone," he says.

"I'm not married to my job. I'm like a soldier. If I'm sent to the front and die in the crossfire, so be it," he says.

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Image: Former Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee received a dividend cheque for the year 2009-10 from the Indian Railway Finance Corporation Limited.
Photographs: Courtesy, PIB.

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I attempt to personify the crossfire: "You mean between Pranab Mukherjee and Mamata Banerjee..."

"We're all on the same page," he says.

We are disturbed. A rival newspaper wants to interview him. "Would you mind?" he asks me. "Not at all," I say, "they can try all they like. But we're the best."

We part on that immodest note.


Image: Tableau of Ministry of Railways passes through the Rajpath.
Photographs: Courtesy, PIB.

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