By Divya Murugesan
With the recent hike of 14.2% in passenger fares and 6.5% in freight charge kindling the ire of the ‘aam aadmi’ last month, the Railway budget this year is a much anticipated one. Releasing on the 8th of this month, the budget is expected to contain some key infrastructure developmental projects. It would also be highly interesting to see how the projects and measures in the budget match up to the recommendations of the NTDPC report (National Transport Development Policy Committee report under the chairmanship of Rakesh Mohan, 2010).
The NDA government has made some bold proposals in the past few months, a very important one being the Diamond Quadrilateral which is an ambitious project aiming at connecting the four metro cities with High Speed Rails (HSR) running at an operational speed of 250-350kmph. These High speed rails are estimated to slash the travel time for 600-1000Kms to 2.5-4 hours! If this figures in the budget and is made a reality in the coming years, it will undoubtedly be a big milestone for the Indian Railways.
Moreover, since the Diamond Quadrilateral is modeled on the Golden Quadrilateral undertaken by the NDA government in 2001 under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, there are greater expectations of its implementation.
This brings us to the main component of the Diamond Quadrilateral, the HSRs. The High Speed Rails have shown mixed results worldwide. While it proved to be a huge success in countries like China and Japan, it hasn’t done well in countries like Thailand. The HSR would definitely require a large amount of capital investment and it isn’t clear whether India is ready to make such a huge investment. The HSR also open up the possibility of having private and foreign investments. Up until now, there has been a complete ban on FDI in railways, but the media reports state ministries giving thought to opening up railways to FDI. Hence, much anticipation remains behind this proposal too.
There also seems to be a big emphasis given to the ‘Green Initiative’ this time. The Green Initiative of the Railway sector aims at using clean energy, reducing emissions and fuel consumption and providing the passengers with hygienic amenities.
As of August 2013, the Indian Railways has already been running 1400 coaches with 3800 bio-toilets which convert human waste discharged into them, into water and small amount of gases with the help of a colony of anaerobic bacteria. There are talks of increasing the coverage as this scheme seems to be a successful fight against problems of unhygienic defecation.
There is also much speculation behind harnessing the solar power for running trains. The initiative of tapping into this clean energy source started in 2013 when the southern Indian Railways partnered with IIT-Madras to use solar panel-generated power to run air conditioned coaches. This initiative of introducing solar power may involve high costs of installation of solar panels but will be cost-effective in the long run as they will reduce the fuel bills which form the second largest expenditure item after salaries of employees in the railway sector. The usage of CNG and dual fuel (consisting of CNG and diesel) already exists.
Another key proposal worth mentioning is the DFCs or Dedicated Freight Corridors which is a mega rail transport project undertaken to increase the transportation capacity, reduce unit costs of transportation, and improve service quality. The implementation of eastern and western DFC (which are of 1893 kms and 1499 kms respectively), lie with the DFCCIL (Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Limited). The projects are to be funded through a mix of bilateral/multilateral loans (from Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the World Bank), gross budgetary support and PPP (Public-Private-Partnership).
The budget also needs to lay pressed emphasis on the safety aspects. In light of the appalling number of times trains have derailed or collided, it is imperative that the government comes up with mechanisms to not only reduce but to completely eliminate such instances. There is a dire need for a multi-pronged approach with focus on introduction of newer technologies, mechanization of maintenance, early detection of flaws and reduction of human dependence. An up-gradation in the skills of the human resources would also play a vital role in preventing railway accidents.
Lastly, the issue of cross subsidization also needs to be addressed. In this context, even the World Bank advised that the conflict between the Indian Railways’ role as a commercial organisation and one to serve social obligations should be resolved.
With a new government in place and the media hype about reforming railways, there are high expectations regarding the implementation of the above mentioned schemes. The Indian Railways surely needs to modernize and change for the better. We can only hope for the best!
Divya is currently pursuing B.A. (Hons) Economics at St Stephens College. She is a zealous writer who likes to share her political and social opinions. She holds prior experience as an editor at Sanskriti School, Chanakyapuri, writes regularly at The Stephanian Forum and has also contributed as an editor to Eureka Wow. A music lover and an enthusiastic reader among many other things, she also likes to spend her time, sketching and painting. She believes in taking each day as it comes and living life to the fullest!