Cockroaches in the Coaches

There have been talks of improving our rail services and better manage the huge monster called the Indian Railways. To analyse this, the new government had appointment a committee headed by Bibek Debroy to study and prescribe measures to improve the Railways. This committee had recently submitted its prescriptions. Among others, the key ones include abolishing railway budgets, allowing private players in rail transport, etc. That means, the public train service would still be around, but it would function along with the private service providers. The stations and tracks would still be managed by the government.

The powerful unions of Indian Railways have vehemently opposed these prescriptions. They have categorically rejected any semblance of privatisation and declared that such a move is against the health of Indian Railways and the nation.

The thing is, this private-public co-existence is already prevalent in other industries. The roads, signals, bridges and flyovers are built and maintained by the governments but used by both the private and public road transport services. The airports and airspace signalling systems are built and managed by the government, but used by both the public and private airliners. The BSNL co-exists with private telecom providers and  Doordharshan co-exists with private TV channels.

But when we try to introduce similar system, a massive protest erupts among the railway unions.

These protests are quite understandable if you think about it a little bit. In tall hose above examples, the public do not prefer the government services these days. We don’t choose government bus service unless there’s no other option available. The only useful purpose Air India serves today is to be a butt of online jokes. We all know how BSNL is struggling to retain their existing customers, leave along attempting to get new ones. Same with Doordharshan. But we all still remember the past when these were the only service providers in their respective sectors and how arrogantly they ‘mis-served’ us.

The same arrogance is now driving the Indian Railways in all their services. The cockroaches have invaded their compartments, the train toilets that are competing with corporation toilets, the crumbling infra-structure hints at massive corruption among all levels, the railway meals make you wonder if they used ‘real food’ to cook them, the staff members think they are already serving at the best quality levels and therefore don’t have to do anything more, and, finally of course, their haphazard safety infrastructure: only last week we had two instances of train derailment at the Chennai Central. Not in a remote village in Bihar or Sikkim, but in Chennai Central. And this was nonchalantly brushed aside as ‘inefficient track maintenance’ by the staff. Nobody bothered to ask anything more. Nobody bothered to do anything more.

And, yes, there’s absolutely no visible system for reporting your grievances and there is no grievance cell at all to redress them. If you’re the affected, you must simply mutter some expletives to yourself and move on.

I can’t think of any other organisation that is as big as railways that functions with as carelessly as this organisation.

That’s exactly what is making these unions scared stiff. If private players come into the fray the public sector would end up becoming like the BSNL and the Doordharshan, practically irrelevant. That’s why they are opposing this report.

‘Private players would make train journeys unaffordable,’ they lament. On the contrary, the entry of private airliners has actually resulted in reduction of fares and also increased frequency of services. Previously, the planes were the vehicle of the rich, and today middle class and even, often, the lower middle class use it. When BSNL was the only service provider, we had three year waiting list for a phone connection despite a 3000 rupees deposit (a princely sum those days). Today, after the entry of the private players, even your rickshaw-walla has one mobile phone in his pocket. A landline connection is virtually free.

Therefore, in my mind, I have no confusion that the entry of private players in rail transport service would immensely benefit the public, result in improved services, cleaner coaches and toilets, in many cases even reduced fair. Above all else, there would be a grievance redress system that would mean if you’re unhappy about the service, there would be a system to record it and address it at the earliest. Therefore, when they say ‘it’s against the health of the nation,’ they are lying.

But they aren’t lying when they say ‘it’s against the health of the railways.’  Of course it is. Once the private players begin to operate their arrogance would be drained completely. Their revenues would come down drastically. As a consequence, a lot of them would be laid off. The opportunity for ‘making money on the side’ via railway contracts would diminish. The current market rate of 10-crore per seat on the Railway Board would come down. Of course, all these are against the ‘health’ of the Indian Railways.

Therefore, to conclude, we the people have a great responsibility. We must pressurise the government to begin to implement Bibek Debroy report with immediate effect. We should show the government that they have our wholehearted support. This huge monster called the Railways has been fattening up by swallowing the public money for decades. Any time this monster’s belly might burst. We should only expedite this process. We should ignore the Communist doomsayers who say ‘Ambanis might takeover’ or ‘Adhanis might take over’ the railways.  Theirs can’t be worse than the Communist Takeover, which is already happening.

It’s about time the coaches are free of the cockroaches and those toilets are free of the stench. For that to happen, the Indian Railways should be made free of these so-called communists.