Of all the comments on the Railway Budget it was Mayawati’s comment that struck a chord of resonance for me. Not what she said about the Budget being anti-people because that is something every Opposition leader seemed programmed to say, but the part about how filthy our railway stations are and how mystifying it is that we seem unable to provide funds for them to be cleaned up. No sooner did she say this than images of China’s railway stations rose up in my mind and I found myself wondering for the hundredth time why our proudly leftist political leaders could not have learned from China the art of providing excellent services in that most humblest of forms of public transport — the railways.
If you have never been on a Chinese train you will not understand what I am talking about, so although I have described my journey from Tianjin to Beijing before, I am going to do it again. A couple of years ago, I was in Tianjin for an international conference and was advised by Indian friends, who happened also to be there, to go to Beijing by train just to see how sophisticated Chinese railway services were compared to our own. They were not exaggerating. When I arrived at Tianjin railway station my eyes literally popped out of my head. My first impression was that I had walked into the lobby of a fancy shopping mall or fine hotel and it took me a minute to remind myself that I was at a railway station. The platforms were so clean that you could eat off them but there was no need for this because there were restaurants, cafes and other facilities for weary travelers that would make most Indian airports look deficient. By the time I got on board the train to Beijing I was bedazzled and this sense of wonder remained with me as the train travelled at more than 300 kilometers an hour. It was as modern a train as I have travelled on. More modern even than the high-speed train I once took from Tokyo to Kyoto.
So whenever I travel by train in India I find myself making judgements and comparisons and waiting for the day when a Railway Minister will announce in his Budget speech that he has set aside a few thousand crore rupees to install modern mechanised systems of cleaning our railway stations and proper toilets on trains. If you think modern toilets are a luxury a ‘poor country like India’ cannot afford, you are wrong. What we cannot afford are the healthcare costs of the diseases caused by human excrement being spread across the length and breadth of India on 110,000 kilometers of railway track. What we cannot afford is for each and every one of our 7,000 railway stations being so filthy as to become disease-spreading centres in their own right. What we cannot afford is to continue providing the ‘common man’ in India with public services of such appalling quality that they would be built again from scratch in a better country.
Every Railway Minister in his Budget speech chants the name of the ‘common man’ as if it were a mantra for bad services. And, if a Railway Minister dares to raise fares even minimally he finds himself assailed by political opponents who attack him in the name of that same common man but ironically nobody demands better, safer services for the 25 million Indians who rely daily on the railways for transport. So year after year we sit through long, dreary railway Budget speeches in which Ministers reel off the names of new trains as if they were reading from railway timetables. This usually acts as a signal for those MPs whose constituencies have been ignored to start yelling in the Well of the house and this is what happened this time as well. Afterwards not a single MP or political leader commented on the quality of railway services other than Mayawati.
Sadly the media seems also to be stuck in a mould, so the next day’s headlines after a Railway Budget are usually used to comment on whether or not fares have gone up. This time headlines shrieked about freight charges having gone up while at the same time charging the Minister with being ‘populist’ by not raising passenger fares. If Pawan Bansal had been truly populist, he would have announced measures to improve railway services which today are without question among the worst in the world. They are not bad for want of resources but bad for want of imagination on the part of the men who have been put in charge of the Railway Ministry. They have, to a man (and woman), been stuck in that old socialist time warp when India was so desperately poor that this Ministry was seen not as a service provider but as a means of patronage. The excessive attention this time to building new railway facilities in Rae Bareilli and Amethi is a good example of what I mean.
What made me feel even gloomier the day after the Railway Budget was that not a single newspaper I read, and I read a few, commented on the inexplicable inability of successive Railway Ministers to be more imaginative about funding their budgets. The Railways have some of the grandest colonial hotels in the country that, if improved, could become a huge source of revenue. The railways own vast tracts of very expensive urban land that, if used better, could bring in enough money to overhaul the entire system. Railway stations, if modernised and cleaned up, could themselves bring in vast revenues because they would attract the investment of restaurateurs and shopkeepers. As someone who has had the dubious privilege of commenting on a few decades of Railway Budgets, I believe that I am in a good position to state that the only reason why Indian railway services have not reached international standards is because we have so far not been lucky enough to have a single really good Railway Minister. If we are ever lucky enough to get one in the future it would be only a matter of time before services improved dramatically enough for Indian railway stations to resemble the one I saw in Tianjin and Indian trains to resemble the one I travelled on to Beijing. For this to happen we need a real Railway Minister with a real vision.