India railways has just announced that it aims to achieve zero waiting list for confirmed tickets by 2027, but only after pictures of overcrowded platforms and trains across India surfaced last week in which several fell unconscious due to suffocation and at least one passenger died. Many passengers having confirmed tickets could not even board their trains. It is just like women singing songs to distressed children to induce them to sleep, or just giving lollipops to divert them from the real crises they suffer.
However, uneasy lies behind this big announcement for the Indian Railways which has been systematically restructured and developed at the cost of the government money only to hand it over to private sector. Everybody can see how the independent operations of Indian Railways and even budget making have been made dependent on the Central government general budget in 2017 under the Modi regime, along with making it without a full time Union Cabinet Minister for quite some time now. Indian Railways has now fallen into dire financial stress, and have lost its capacity to plan and implement its projects with its own earnings. Burden of loans has been on the increase which would ultimately make the Indian Railways unsustainable breaking open the door for privatization.
How can Indian Railways implement its big announcement made on November 16 at a time when it is undergoing a difficult phase of financial crisis? Until now for every problem Government has been saving itself behind the blind of financial crisis? Had it not been an election year, we could not have seen many projects being announced and implemented. Government was just sleeping for the last four years.
The reported big plan now includes putting out 3,000 new trains on tracks in the next 3-4 years, to increase the number of trains from the current 10,748 to over 13,000, apart from a big planned transformation of tracks. It has been reported that India Railways will lay out a network of 4000-5000 km track per year. The passenger carrying capacity of India Railways has also been planned to increase to 1000 crore yearly as against the present 800 crore. We have also seen recently several launches of high-speed trains, such as Vande Bharat trains, purportedly to cut down the travel time of the passengers.
Amidst these big claims we have been reading reports about the burning of trains, accidents, and casualties, apart from crimes committed inside the running trains. Obviously, the government has little concern about the passenger security and proper amenities for them. Cleanliness and even availability of potable water has been given low priority.
Modi government that has made the Indian Railways even without full time Union Cabinet Minister for quite some time hampering the proper working of the largest department in the public sector. The latest report of the CAG tabled in the Parliament during the last monsoon session has even flagged that Indian Railways could not generate a net surplus from its gross earnings of freight traffic, passenger services and sundry segments during 2021-22.
The same report had pointed out that funds for pension schemes were diverted for publicity of other schemes (which was PM’s personalized publicity as is the case in all department funds of Ministries/Departments that CAG report has not mentioned categorically for obvious reasons).
Operating ratio of the Indian Railways during the period under consideration was 107.39 in 2021-22 against 97.45 in 2020-21. It meant Railways spent 107.39 paise to earn 100 paise (rupee one). A higher operating ratio indicates a poorer ability to generate surplus. As compared to the operating ratio of 97.45 during 2020-21, there was deterioration in 2021-22.Situation has been deteriorating over the years.
Total expenditure was increased in 2021-22, CAG found, by 35.19 per cent and capital expenditure by 22.61 per cent. Revenue expenditure also increased by 49.30 per cent. Total working expenditure incurred was 75.83 per cent on staff costs, pension payments and lease hire charges on rolling stock. An additional expenditure of Rs 7,778.43 crore more incurred than the sanctioned budget of Rs 5,762.20 crore.
In financial year 2021-22, Indian Railways recorded a loss of Rs. 15,024.58 crore. Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways had also pulled up Ministry of Railways for revenue losses. It is a great concern for the Indian Railways that freight trains remained operation at only 60 per cent capacity due to demand slackness from closure of industries and factories or unannounced recession. Nation’s four major railroads still have less traffic than a decade ago.
There is more dangerous trend in the Indian Railways finances, that have a total shareholder equity of Rs 454.78 billion and total debt-to-equity ratio to 923.3 per cent. Though, as of now, Modi government has ruled out full privatisation of Indian Railways, its several components, such as departmental units, public sector units, special purpose vehicles for completion and fructification of many railways projects including ticketing arms, IRCTC etc have been divested or privatised.
Modi government also intends to privatize the operations of the Dedicated Freight Corridors. Hundreds of trains and pair of routes have already been announced to be privatise which would comprise about 3 percent of mail and express trains by the end of 2023. Moreover, the sword of debt trap is hanging over India Railways.
Indian Railways is actually in very bad shape, and such big announcement are intended only to catch attention of the people in an election year. Can electorate forget that trains hardly run on time, coaches and toilets are dirty, and Indian Railways is unable to spend enough money on maintenance and upkeep of coaches, seats, toilets, catering services, and even on providing potable water.
Train journey has increasingly become unsafe over the years due to crimes and accidents. For example, theft cases have gone up significantly since 2014. The cases of theft reached the highest mark of 36,584 in 2018. However, no data on theft cases is available in the last four years. Big announcements mean nothing if government does not even provide real time data regarding safety of persons and their articles. NCRB records reveal that more than 16,000 people were killed in nearly 18,000 railway accidents in 2021.
The big announcements are meant to just cover up the disturbing reality of the Indian Railways. (IPA Service)