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Reform Railways,the China way

Whenever comparisons are made between India and China to show how our northern neighbour has galloped ahead of us in many areas of development.

Written by Sudheendra Kulkarni |
June 26, 2011 3:10:45 am

Whenever comparisons are made between India and China to show how our northern neighbour has galloped ahead of us in many areas of development,my mental response is straightforward. I applaud the fraternal people of China and their government for their achievements. After all,their achievements add to the collective progress of humanity. At the same time,the patriot in me asks in agony: Why are we as a nation failing again and again to pursue a big national vision? Why are our political leaders unable and unwilling to look beyond their narrow party or personal interests,frittering away our national energies in constant and corrosive fights?

The newest trigger for this introspective thought is China’s latest staggering achievement. On July 1,when China’s communist party celebrates its 90th anniversary,its leadership will formally open bullet-train service from Beijing to Shanghai. It covers 1,460 km in five hours flat. Delhi-Mumbai Rajdhani Express takes 15 hours to traverse 1,380 km. There will be 90 bullet trains a day in each direction—one every 15 minutes. By next year,China will have built 13,000 km of high-speed rail connecting several cities,more than the rest of the world combined. Train travel in China is becoming nearly as comfortable and pleasurable as air travel. The newly built railway stations in Chinese cities are comparable to the best airports in the world. Doubt it? Visit the Beijing West railway station on the Internet. It is as much of an attraction for foreign tourists as the Beijing airport,the world’s largest,or ‘Bird’s Nest’,the iconic Olympic stadium.

India hasn’t built a single world-class railway station since Independence. Our grandest rail terminus,Mumbai’s VT station,now renamed after Shivaji,is an inheritance from the British period. To know how badly this UNESCO world heritage structure and its environs have been treated by railway and city authorities,just take a stroll around and inside the station. Sadly,renaming places and institutions represents the farthest limit of the vision and valour of Maharashtra’s querulous and votebank-focussed politicians. Now,they are clamouring to rename Dadar station after ‘Chaityabhoomi’,Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Samadhi. Meanwhile,Dadar,the most crowded suburban station in the world,continues to be ugly,unsafe and intolerably uncomfortable. Indeed,suburban rail travel during peak hours in India’s commercial capital is a bone-breaking experience. Each year over 3,000 people are killed on Mumbai’s railway tracks,but who in Delhi’s and Mumbai’s corridors of power cares? Rahul Gandhi—the ‘yuvraj’ who is certain to be made a ‘raja’ by his party before the next parliamentary elections—had a photo-op travelling in Mumbai’s local train last year,presumably to show how the royalty’s heart beats for the aam aadmi. But Rail Yatri Rahul has not articulated a single big idea so far on improving Mumbai’s suburban services,or,for that matter,the railway network in the country as a whole. O hapless and leaderless India,where are your visionary nation-builders?

Railways were introduced in India (1853) before they came to China (1876). In 1947,India had 53,396 km of railway network. Mainland China had only 27,000 km,half of it in Manchuria. By 2010,India’s network had expanded to only 64,000 km,and is growing at just 400 km per year. In contrast,China’s network last year was 100,000 km,and will grow to 120,000 km by 2020. It carries five times more freight tonnage than Indian Railways. The average speed of our freight trains is 26 kmph. China regularly runs heavy-haul freight trains at 120 kmph. In just three years,China has invested $300 billion (nearly 14 lakh crore rupees!) into its railways. India’s annual capital expenditure is 1/20th of that amount. Do our netas know how much their ignorance,incompetence and cheap populism is costing India in terms of employment generation,wealth creation and environmental degradation?

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To change this situation,here are 10+1 suggestions for Dr Manmohan Singh,who now has the railway portfolio with him. 1) Please make railway reforms,as part of an overarching national mass transportation policy,one of your highest priorities. 2) Don’t give the railway ministry to anyone; drive it from the PMO. 3) Stop having a separate railway budget. 4) Disband the Railway Board. Corporatise and decentralise Indian Railways. 5) Liberate our talented railway officials from the insular ‘cadre’ mentality and give them attractive new opportunities for career development,as has happened in the telecom sector. 6) Take railway unions into confidence,convincing them that reforms will create more jobs. 7) Introduce farsighted policies that open the floodgates of private investment and public-private partnerships into expansion and modernisation of railways. If India’s private sector companies can create world-class airports and airlines,if they can build world-class highways,they can also,in collaboration with restructured Indian Railways entities,build new tracks,new stations,and better passenger and freight train services. 8) Begin by hiving off Mumbai’s suburban railway system into a separate corporation,with a mandate to run both the existing network and the state government’s proposed metro system under a unified command. We already have an excellent proof-of-concept in Delhi Metro led by E Sreedharan,a visionary. 9) Implement the Delhi-Mumbai Freight Corridor and the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor,two super-ambitious infrastructure projects,on war-footing. Please note that China built the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train service a year ahead of schedule. 10) Encourage Indian companies (including IRCON) to become better than the big MNCs like Bombardier and Siemens in railway technology,manufacture and infrastructure building. 11) If you cannot do this,make way for a leader who can.

sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com

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