View: Why Narendra Modi should retain Suresh Prabhu as India's Railway Minister

 Anilesh S Mahajan        Last Updated: August 25, 2017  | 15:34 IST
Why Suresh Prabhu's resignation will not end Indian Railways' troubles

The whispers in Lutyen's Delhi suggest that it is almost certain that the Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu might be shifted, if not dropped out of the cabinet. These murmurs turned mumble, when the minister made his offer to exit public. He along with the Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh is facing serious threat of losing their jobs, if not removal. But is the number of accidents the only factor behind this? Will exit of Prabhu help? What are the options in front of the prime minister? What will happen to the reforms Prabhu was executing?

Prabhu is executing one of the most difficult reforms in Indian Railway's history, restructuring the Railway Board. Since independence, the board's structure remained untouched. During Rajiv Gandhi's tenure, member electrical was introduced, because of priority given to the electrification of tracks. In last 25 years of liberalization of Indian economy, Railways remained least reformed sector. Along with these structural reforms, he pushed the ball rolling in creating infrastructure, financial re-strengthening and improving the face of Indian Railways. Today, he might be facing extreme criticism for safety, but this is a legacy issue and Prabhu was putting in efforts to reverse it.

The sources are suggesting that one of the options prime minister has is to put Nitin Gadkari with an additional charge of Indian Railways. Gadkari has already reformed shipping and ports, and is aggressively pushing Highways back on track and it makes sense to put Railways as well, for synergies and integration of strategies to streamline logistic movement in the country. Most of the developed countries have ministry of transport (with powers to formulate policies for Civil Aviation, shipping & ports, railways, waterways and Highways), and rest of the work is done via companies (either in public or private sector). In 2013, China moved to this model. India under Prabhu is moving towards this, but Railways is not ready for this as yet. And would need many of the reforms Prabhu initiated to take shape.

In India Railways is a government department, not even a PSU -with a separate profit and loss statement. Exit of Prabhu in a mid, might derail, if not delay them, both of this India can ill-afford. In last three years, he streamlined Dedicated Freight Corridors, or DFCs Delhi to Mumbai and Delhi to Kolkata. All the required tenders are out, and expected to commission the first section between Khurja (near Aligarh) to Bhopur (near Kanpur) by end of this 2017, and the entire corridors will come by end of 2019. 492 out of 1219 sections are running at more than 100% capacity -a large part of it run on these corridors. DFCs will decongest and allow IR to run trains at much faster pace. Along with this, Prabhu debottlenecked, the two projects to manufacture locomotives are coming up in Madhepura and Marora in Bihar. These projects were envisaged during UPA-1 and were hanging fire since then. The contracts are given to the US based GE Transport and French major Alstom, and construction is on full swing. However, Prabhu is not that lucky in allocating the factory to manufacture coaches at Kachrapara, the project is still stuck.

Similarly, he pushed the ball rolling in decongesting the existing railway tracks and electrification. But his talent is tested in transforming the board -which over the years become symbol of organization looking for ways to not to do work. Over the years, committees after committees, experts after experts recommended drastic changes the board is required to undergo. But almost every predecessor of Prabhu continued to run Railways on populism, with very little focus on infrastructure and performance of railways.

Prabhu inherited a rogue board, where unlike corporate houses, Chairman of Board, didn't had veto power. He was equal among members. Hence, in multi-departmental decisions, it was impossible to decide. The members represented the particular cadres and provided patronage to their respective juniors. For example: for 30 years, the board could not decide, if they want to keep hot case to keep the food -to be served to passengers-warm. The reason, member Electrical and Member traffic, couldn't reach to consensus and chairman had no power to overrule any of them. Similarly, the member electrical and member mechanical couldn't decide on whether to opt and manufacture double traction locomotives. Double traction locomotive is the one, which can run on both electricity and diesel. Both the members remained busy in saving their respective turf, not railways.   

Prabhu was trying to break this. This obviously disturbs the seniorities of several officers for their elevation and future postings in the organizations. He brought in cross-functional directorates, and reworked the portfolios of the members and made it more relevant. The change is not easy, and certainly not easy to accept. Similarly, Prabhu was delegating powers to take financial decisions at DRM levels. He elevated the post of Chairman. He backed the case of AK Mittal seeking extension as chairman-who resigned on August 23-but his extension later didn't give him authority to write annual confidential reports of the members. Many might want to believe that exit of Mital and entry of erstwhile Air India CMD, Ashwani Lohani is function of these railway accidents, but it was going on for while.          

The most contagious part of the Railways story today is the number of accidents and deaths. But the records show, these accidents are actually coming down drastically. From 135 accidents in 2014/15, the number is already down to 104 in the last fiscal. Just to put it in context, during the five years of UPA 1, on an average trains in India met with an accident 207 times in a year, the number was brought down to 135 during their next tenure. During the Prabhu's time, it is down to 115 a year. Another argument, which go against Prabhu is the number of deaths happen in these accidents. The ministry's data show that 193 passengers died in derailments in 2016/17 -highest in one decade. A year back the number was 56.

To be fair to Prabhu, most of these accidents are happening because of the legacy issues, not because of laxity. Will exit of Prabhu help in reducing the number of accidents and deaths? This might sound weird in the present context, but the answer is no. Prabhu was instrumental in bringing priority to safety back in planning for railways, this might take some time to trickle down to the ground. India is now moving away from Mid-20th century technology based 'unsafe' ICF coaches to much modern Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches. This is German technology based coaches, which are made of stainless steel. India has already stopped production of ICF coaches. In cases of collision maximum damage happen, because coaches overlap, the new technology is popular elsewhere, because of anti-climbing feature. But changing 40,000 coaches -which is Indian Railways 90% capacity-is not an easy task. Along with this, Prabhu escalated elimination of all the unmanned crossings. In last three years railways eliminated 4258 unmanned crossings, leading to drop in fatalities from these crosses accidents from 64% of total fatalities in 2013-14 to 16.81% in 2016-17.

Now that the prime minister asked Prabhu to wait (till the cabinet reshuffle is discussed), the fate of reforms in Railways also hangs in fire.

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