Saturday, May 26, 2007

Indian Railways' overlooked frontier

Indian Railways' overlooked frontier

Chitta Baral, Professor, Arizona State University,

By all measures the achievements of Indian Railways over the last two years have been phenomenal and everyone associated with this turnaround, and especially the railway minister Mr. Lalu Yadav, deserve all the kudos that are coming their way. The brochure on Railways at highlights some of the achievements till October 2006. It mentions that the freight and passenger traffic growing at the rate of 9.4% and 7.4% respectively during the last two years as opposed to historical growth at 3-4%. Recent news items mention Railways having a profit of Rs 13,000 crores in 2005-06 and anticipating a profit of Rs 20,000 in 2006-07.

These achievements and the resulting euphoria has propelled the Railways towards many ambitious and further profit making plans such as a dedicated freight corridor. However, there is a worry that in this euphoria the Indian railways may forget its social responsibilities. The goal of Indian Railways is not to be a profit making arm of the Indian government -- the Indian government is not a business enterprise, but rather a self sustaining unit that fulfills its social responsibilities and provides for part of the infrastructure needed for India's economic growth. So making profit is a good goal for IR; but at the same time it must not lose sight of its social responsibilities. As the 2007 Railway budget and the 11th five year plan looms we would like to hereby remind the IR and the planning commission some of the social aspects of IR that they both should keep in mind and that have a chance of getting overlooked by the Indian Railways drive for profit.

There is a great disparity in terms of railway density -- Route kms per one thousand sq km -- across various states of the country. Using the 2004-05 figures, the average rail density for India is 19.13. The rail density is highest in Delhi (138.2) followed by West Bengal (43.4), Punjab (41.6), Haryana (36.1), Bihar (35.9), Uttar Pradesh (35.8), Tamil Nadu (32.1), Assam (31.9), Kerala (27), Gujarat (26.9) and Jhrakhand (24.3). Among the major states outside Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir the lowest rail density is in Himachal Pradesh (5.1), followed by Uttarakhand (6.4), Chhatisgarh (8.6), Orissa (14.6), Karnataka (15.5), Madhya Pradesh (15.9), Rajasthan (17), Maharashtra (17.9), Goa (18.6) and Andhra Pradesh (18.9).

While the importance of having adequate Railway infrastructure in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast has been realized the same is not the case with respect to the other frontier of India that lies in the interior. With respect to the North east the planning commission aims to break the sense of isolation associated with it. Several projects for the NE have been planned during the 11th five year plan including extending tracks to Kohima, laying lines inside Meghalaya, and possibly a line to Itanagar. A line to Agartala is nearing completion.

By the other frontier of India I mean the area that includes the KBK region of Orissa, parts of Chhatisgarh, parts of Andhra Pradesh etc. The Rail density in this area is very low, the population of this area is mostly tribals, several districts of these areas are listed

among the most backward districts of India, and big part of these areas are extremist infested. In other words this area is farther from the mainstream India than most of North east and Jammu and Kashmir. But this area abounds in mineral resources and thus generates a lot of revenue for the Railways. Yet the Railways have severely neglected this area and its people.

This has not gone unnoticed. The Planning Commission in its report comparing the development status of economic infrastructure of Orissa, especially the KBK region, vis-a-vis the country says: "Railways have always played an important role in the economic

development and rapid social transformation in all parts of the globe. It is one of the key economic infrastructures. However, it is most unfortunate that in a poor and backward state like Orissa, development of rail networks has received much less attention of the Central government in the post-independence period." Similarly in analyzing the 69 backward districts of India Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari say: "Rail network is significantly less dense in the backward districts (with the exception of Northern Bihar), and even the parts that are connected may not have frequent trains serving those locations."

Hence, although the 2005-06 Railway budget significantly increased its allocation to projects in Orissa over previous years, the 11th five year plan should aim to finish and the 2007 budget should have generous allocations towards some of the unfinished connectivity in the above mentioned forgotten frontier straddling Orissa, Chhatisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. This includes the lines Khurda Rd - Balangir, Nuapada-Gunupur-Theruvali, Lanjigarh Rd-Junagarh-Nawarangpur-Jeypore-Malkangiri, Baripada-Bangiriposi-...-Tatanagar, Durg-Dallirajhara-Jagdalpur, Rajahmundry-Bhadrachalam Rd. and connecting Malkangiri, Kirandul and Manguru.

There are several other dangling lines in the above mentioned states where the end points are mining locations. The resulting lack of connectivity has resulted in almost zero passenger services and as a result local inhabitants, mostly tribals, often travel on the roof

of freight trains and this has resulted in several tragic incidents with loss of lives. Some of these end points are Barsuan, Kiriburu, Gua, Bolanikhadan, Badampahar and Gurumahisani and the 11th plan must aim to connect as many of them as possible through the already surveyed and/or initiated connections such as Talcher-Barsuan, Keonjhar-Badampahar and Bangiriposi-Gurumahisani.

An irony is that the freight operations in these areas have contributed significantly to the Railways profits, but yet the Railways has hesitated in focusing on completing the above mentioned lines. For example, for the 2003-2004 and 2004-05 the working expense as part of gross earnings of the ECOR zone is the second best at 66.64% and 61.75% respectively. The other profit making zones in those years are South east central (62.8% and 56.1%), North central (76.33% and 66.71%), Central (80.29% and 82.48%), South eastern (81.24% and 83.51%), South Central (85.72% and 83.62%), West Central (80.99% and 84.08%), South Western (91.35% and 86.15%), Western (93.21% and 90.85%), Northern (91.08% and 92.89%) and East Central (93.65% and 98.9%). The loss making zones are metro Kolkata (247% and 264.38%), North Eastern (151.93% and 160.88%), Northeast Frontier (147.98% and 159.45%), Eastern (161.3% and 152.84%), Southern (118.55% and 120.79%) and North Western (106.26% and 104.98%).

The above is illuminating; in some sense the poor and backward tribals and their land in ECOR is generating profits that is being ploughed into subsidizing the commuters in metro Kolkata. In the coming years additional metro lines are under works. This includes

146.5 Km in Mumbai at a cost of Rs. 19,525 crores, two lines in Bangalore covering 33 km at a cost of Rs. 6,207 crores, a three line Hyderabad metro of 66 km at the cost of Rs 8,760 crores, etc. No doubt, for speedier implementation part of the above will be borne by the states, but what about the operating expenses in the future years? These cities are drivers of India's growth and investment in them is good for India. But in the process let us not forget the tribals of Chhatisgarh and the KBK districts of Orissa. Such constant neglect of their well being is perhaps why extremists have been able to make inroads into those areas.

Switching gears let us now consider another aspect of the Indian Railways. With 1.6 million employees it is the largest employer in the world. With its aim to significantly grow in the coming years there will be opportunities for the establishments of new employment centers such as new production units. For example, it is reported that the recently announced Rail Coach factory in Rae Bareli at a cost of 1000 crores will provide direct employment to 5000 people and indirect employment to another 10,000; and the Rail engine factory in Bdhaura in Bihar's Saran district at a cost of Rs 1000 crore will give direct employment to 5000 people and indirect employment to another 10,000.

When establishing such units IR must look at regional balance and distribute them across the country. Its recent announcements of a Rail coach factory in Rae Bareli (the constituency of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi) and Bihar (the home state of the Railway minister) do not quite give the Indian people the confidence that IR is looking at regional balance. Note that IR's current major production units are the Railway Coach factory in Kapurthala (Punjab), Integral Coach factory in Perambur near Chennai, Diesel loco works in Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), Chittaranjan Loco works in Chittaranjan (West Bengal), Diesel-loco modernisation works in Patiala (Punjab) and Wheel and Axle plant in Bangalore (Karnataka) and during Lalu's recent visit to Kerala it has been reported that he has promised setting up of a bogey and parts manufacturing unit and an electric multiple unit in Kerala. IR must tabulate all these and try its best to spread the cheer across the country not just in specific states from where some special people come from.

Finally IR must watch out the activity of some of the older railway zones that seem to have not gotten over the zone splits and as a result have knowingly or unknowingly acted in a way detrimental to states that are part of that zone but do not contain the HQ of that zone. For example, CAG reported that while the gauge conversion of the Rupsa-Bangiriposi section (in Orissa) in South Eastern Railway (SER) zone was conceived as an alternate to the third line between Kharagpur and Tatanagar, SER adopted a mixed track structure instead of conforming to the standard required to run heavy haul trains, thereby defeating the basic objective of providing an alternate route to the heavy haul freight traffic. If SER is not interested in these lines, and is wasting Railways money, may be the railway ministry can consider

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