There is a real danger that the frequency of train accidents in India might soon desensitise people as yet another instance of what has become thoughtlessly,mind-numbingly commonplace. That might be the cruel legacy of our serially populist railway ministers,most of all the last one. On Sunday,the Delhi-bound Kalka Mail derailed in Uttar Pradesh. Many lost their lives,many more were seriously injured. The railway ministry has been hostage to coalition politics,with one or another coalition partner assuming the ministry as its by right. With a cabinet reshuffle imminent and with the prime minister still in charge of the ministry after Mamata Banerjees resignation,this practice should be ended immediately and the ministry given to a responsible individual. This requires some serious thought and a lot of political will. A decisive change is required in allocating ministries so that certain jobs do not go to certain allies automatically.
The Indian Railways (IR) need an overhaul. Banerjee and her predecessors were clearly not the right people for that. It is necessary to sink the belief of such allies,the Trinamool Congress in this case,that the ministry is theirs to keep under this Central dispensation. Banerjee too must realise that if she remote-controls IR from Kolkata,the state of affairs will boomerang on her politically. She has to let go of her grip on what is not her fiefdom,and let the PM pick his minister. Besides,the railways must have a full-fledged,devoted minister. Using IR to shower patronage on the ministers home state is akin to the DMKs assumption that certain new economy ministries are always its own.
IR must undergo crucial reforms. It is time to turn around the socialist,statist behemoth by rationalising fares indexed to fuel costs and prioritising projects,to say nothing of yanking the railways off eco-parks,sports academies or museums. Above all,IR is a financial disaster. Its 2011 budget outlay of Rs 57,630 crore is tied up with a borrowing of Rs 20,594 crore; 10 of its 16 zones missed their operating ratio targets in the last fiscal,and little has been done to upgrade railway infrastructure to make journeys safer and faster. The next minister cannot milk IR for electoral points in her home state,and must set to work turning IR into a professionally managed,cost-effective but state-of-the-art,21st century transportation system.