For close to two years, Suresh Prabhu and his team were trying to, among other things, create a mobile app that would get the entire passenger services ecosystem in one seamless place. And for close to two years, Railways’ software arm was offering Prabhu all the reasons why it couldn’t be done the way it is envisaged. This lack of success in matching bright ideas with appropriate execution, ranging from a mobile app to long-term reform, marked Prabhu’s tenure as railways minister. A slew of derailments may have expedited his departure but, a top railway bureaucrat told The Indian Express Sunday, Prabhu’s main drawback was that he offered “very good software solutions for essentially hardware problems”.
This is where new Railways Minister Piyush Goyal has his task cut out. With less than two years to go for the next election, Goyal needs to implement a Railways roadmap already approved under the PMO’s watch of the PMO. He has to do it fast enough to showcase “perceptible change”— a phrase often repeated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the PMO in meetings with the Railway ministry over the past three years— by May 2019.
Unlike most other ministries, Railways handles all the agencies and resources that are supposed to implement policies. Therefore, from framing the right Catering Policy to ensuring tasty food actually reaches the passenger, the buck stops with the minister. A complaint central to criticism of Prabhu in the ministry was his delegating his major financial powers to the executives.
Goyal takes charge of a Railways struggling to make ends meet after clocking the worst operating ratio in 16-odd years last fiscal. Its pension bill is inching towards an unmanageable Rs 50,000 crore from the current Rs 42,000 crore budgeted. New avenues of earnings, through “non-fare revenues”— a subject the PM often mentions — and a broader freight basket are not emerging as fast as the old revenue streams are coming under duress.
Projects like finishing the Dedicated Freight Corridor and network expansion in the busiest routes are not pacy enough despite assured funding. So even though capital expenditure crossed Rs 1 lakh crore a year in Prabhu’s time, its benefits have not shown in performance yet. Prabhu’s biggest tangible contribution, the Rs 1.5 lakh crore loan deal to Railways from LIC of India for creating lucrative network expansion assets, will require a push on spending.
The speed of switchover to safer rolling stock and modern technology for track maintenance remains slow as ever. The ministry is still deliberating how it would spend Rs 1 lakh crore of special safety fund in five years. New departments created by Prabhu in Rail Bhawan such as “Mobility” and “Transformation” are yet to justify their creation. Reforms like restructuring the various railway services and through that the overall railway administration are now all on Goyal’s plate. Thankfully for Goyal, the bullet train project, being executed by the National High Speed Rail Corporation, is yet to suffer delays.
Incidentally, the coal ministry— Goyal retains it as dual charge— accounts for 46 per cent of Railways’ business. How he balances his role as both vendor and client is to be seen. The coal ministry has had a grouse that Railways was not expediting works in lucrative coal linkages in Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhatisgarh, and was not incentivising coal movement with rates for long-distance transportation.