Greek tragedy on the rails

  • 28/02/1996

THROUGHOUT the developed world today, there is a determined effort to clean up the air, and railways are being pushed as the most convenient, eco-friendly, cheap, fast and comfortable mode of transport. Road transport, correspondingly, is being made costlier by imposing heavy tolls. India's policy too had always been to push for railways. But where are we headed today?

The economy has clearly evolved into a road-dominant one in the '90s. Between 1967 and 1987, while rail freight expanded by 3.3 per cent annually, road output increased by 8.8 per cent. Passenger traffic expanded by 4.7 per cent for the railways, and 9.8 per cent in the road transport sector. And this, despite the fact that Indian Railways (IR) had shifted from being a freight-dominant operation to a passenger- dominant one.

The only incentive for passengers and freight operators to opt for the railways before jumping on to a truck or a bus is faster, well coordinated, comfortable and efficient train services. That calls for spending more on indigenous R&O. But the mandarins in Rail Bhawan have chosen to find the most expensive means of upgrading technology. The Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) deal for 6,000 horsepower (hp) electric locos has fleeced the exchequer by Rs 40 crore for each of the 33 locos, although indigenously developed 5,000 hp electric locos, costing a mere Rs 5 crore each, existed. The official explanation is that the ABB locos are technically far advanced.

In this context, the question being parried is, if India can put together the most advanced remote sensing satellite, if it is developing the largest ever radio telescope, why cannot it produce better engines than ABB or General Motors? The answer is simple: the bosses are not interested. The Research Design and Standards Organisation, the IR'S only in-house R&O unit, receives a paltry 0.09 per cent of its plan outlay.

Economic liberalisation in India is expected to raise the long-term annual growth rate of the economy from 3.5-4.0 per cent to 4.5-6.0 per cent. This implies a doubling of freight transport output every 10-13 years, and doubling of passenger traffic every 7 -10 years.

A World Bank (WB) report, India Transport Sector; Long Term Issues, 1995, says that in 1992 (the latest figures avail- able), the railways had carried 250 billion tonne per km (BTKM) of freight and 307 billion passengers per km (BPKM). The corresponding figures for road transport are 384 BTKM of freight and 1715 BPKM. The road sector is, therefore, taking 61 and 85 per cent of the freight and passengers transported. Why?

The same (WB) report points out that the "market is happy with road transportation, as the railways are unable and/or unwilling to provide dependable customer-responsive service". The private sector handling freight is, therefore, making hay all the way down the densely polluted roads cutting through the countryside. The environmental cost of this, though uncomputed so far, can only be tremendously high.

The National Highways Authority of India has floated feasibility study tenders for seven national super-highways. These 100 metre-wide road corridors will crisscross the length and breadth of the country , on freshly acquired land. Officials at the surface transport ministry indicate that as this work is to be carried out by private enterprise, the government is expected to give the go-by to niceties like detouring around ecologically fragile spots.

But while the private transport sector is gearing for a bonanza, the railways are being asked to fly on financially clipped wings. The Planning Commission has pruned the railway budget from Rs 45,600 crore to Rs 27,202 crore for the Eighth Five Year Plan. The IR thus finds its plans and designs literally derailed by the same logic of liberalisation that is expected to lead to an improved economic situation.

Cost-effective solutions alone will help promote railways in India otherwise, a haphazard road transport will lead the race), because the government has no money to invest, and private investment will come if the railways are made profit- oriented. As of now, the government has only opted for privatisation on certain tourist routes. The IR'S image of being unreliable is also not conducive to attracting private stakes.

We are witnessing a classical Greek tragedy here. The protagonists of yore in Sophocles or Aeschylus' masterpieces, like our policymakers today, would be fully aware of the perils of the path they are treading, yet walk right through to the tragic end. What is needed most urgently, therefore, is for the government to undertake a complete overhauling of the rail transport setup. And not only should it undertake a technological review but integrate road and rail transport plannings. Perhaps, in this, the ministry of environment and forests can push for stricter use of roads by imposing heavy taxes. But then, who will bell the powerful diesel lobby? Politicians who cannot resist petty corrupters like S K Jain of hawala infamy?