Rejuvenation plan for indian railways

The report of the debroy Committee proposing the rationalisation and restructuring of the over-centralised Indian Railways (IR), submitted to the Union government in mid-June, offers the year-old BJP/NDA government a great opportunity to radically improve the operations and productivity of the country’s logistics backbone. In fiscal 2014-15, Indian Railways hauled 1050.18 million tonnes of freight and 8.3 billion passengers across the country. Yet it’s common knowledge that given more efficient management and better maintenance of track, rolling stock, stations and financial and human resources, IR could transport twice the volume of freight and passengers. 

The eight-member Debroy Committee makes a strong case for the IR management to give top priority to sharply increasing the volume of freight and passengers it transports. To this end, it has recommended that private companies be given the freedom to run trains between destinations of their choice; that management of the sprawling nationalised service is decentralised with greater administrative power invested in divisional and zonal managers; gradual reduction of IR’s social and employee welfare obligations; placing all production units under separate CEOs; outsourcing rolling stock and production, and appointment of an independent regulator with quasi-judicial powers to supervise tariffs, safety, fair access, licensing, and technical standards.

Clearly, given the mammoth proportions to which this over-manned (1.3 million) government monopoly has swollen, it can no longer be run as a government department. Therefore the corporatisation proposal of the committee is as welcome as it’s overdue, particularly its recommendation to allow private companies to lease track and run trains, a proposal made three decades ago by your editor in Businessworld, and typically ignored instead of being debated.

Indeed there’s no logical reason why business groups such as Tata, Birla, Ambani, Adani and others can’t run high-speed trains for middle and upper class passengers and for urgently required freight by paying track-lease, parking and warehousing fees to IR. This is the situation in commercial aviation, and it’s working perfectly well.

Inevitably, railway unions are up in arms against the committee’s proposals despite the gradual change (over ten years) it has suggested in its archaic structure and operations. They are unanimous that these are the first steps towards privatisation. Yet the plain truth is that IR has long been privatised by the country’s notoriously corrupt and inefficient neta-babu conspiracy and the undertaking’s 1.3 million employees, and exists as a state within the state.

The sensible proposals of the Debroy Committee need to be substantially accepted to break the government-employees stranglehold on this lifeline of the economy, and enable IR to accord priority to the business interests, safety and comfort of its customers who fund it through their taxes.

Don’t discourage campus debates

The recent ban imposed upon a students’ organisation by Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Madras for criticising prime minister Narendra Modi, has highlighted the widespread practice within Indian academia of discouraging and curbing students from engaging in political debates and discussions. The Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) was ‘derecognised’ on May 22 by the dean following a Union human resource development (HRD) ministry letter directing the institute to investigate an anonymous complaint that APSC was spreading “hatred” against Modi and his government’s policies. The ‘autonomous’ IIT-M, which like the 16 IITs across the country, falls under the direct purview of the HRD ministry, was quick to ban the organisation without even giving APSC (which was founded last April by a group of IIT-M students to initiate debate on socio-political issues) an opportunity to defend itself. Following student protests and national outrage, IIT-M has subsequently revoked the ban but not without riders.

The dominant view in Indian academia is that colleges and universities are protective spaces in which even adult students — conferred the right to vote by the Constitution — should be shielded from expressing political opinions and debating controversial issues in the interest of institutional peace and harmony. For instance, the cause and consequences of the ghar wapsi (religious re-conversion) programme launched by the sangh parivar are unlikely to be debated in colleges for fear it would breach campus peace. Although it’s universally conceded that debate and advocacy are important life skills, even in universities where students’ unions are politically-affiliated, dialogue and debate tend to be centred around innocuous subjects, or restricted to demanding better academic and residential facilities and reduced tuition fees.

The result of de-politicisation of the education system is that India’s higher education institutions have been reduced to degree factories, producing graduates with under-developed social skills and minimal awareness of complex political and national issues. A recent national survey conducted by the Bangalore-based Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness covering 10,542 class IX students and first year college undergrads, indicates that 74 percent of the respondents aren’t aware that the role of legislatures is to formulate, debate and enact laws, and only 37 percent have a proper understanding of the meaning of democracy. Unschooled in the art of orderly discussion and debate, youth who enter local, state and national legislatures tend to be unruly and disruptive.

The country’s command-and-control academics need to understand that politically aware student organisations are the training forums of a healthy and mature democracy. Education confined to narrow technical/subject expertise without any knowledge of socio-political challenges confronting the nation, is incomplete.