In the 1890s, my mother’s grandfather joined the Bengal Nagpur Railway. For my family, this began a four-generation association with the railways. He rose to become an assistant engineer, working in the area between Chakradharpur and Bilaspur. In the 1920s, his son, my grandfather, joined the railways. He rose to become a PWI or a permanent way inspector, a key official in the maintenance and upgrade of railway infrastructure. He had a large, happy railway family—seven sons and three daughters, including my mother. Of the seven sons, six joined the Indian Railways. Of the three sons-in-law, one was in the railways. Of the next generation (my first cousins), two still serve in the railways.
This explains my sense of ownership when it comes to the Indian Railways. When the railway minister, in his budget speech, spoke of the Indian Railways having a “total track length of 1.6 lakh km, 63,000 coaches, 2.4 lakh wagons and 13.1 lakh employees”, I got the goose pimples. I always do when someone talks of the majesty of the Indian Railways. When Mamata Banerjee, as railway minister, appointed me chairman of the passenger services committee, I accepted with gratitude. Somewhere deep down, I knew I would make my mother proud.
The reason for this preamble is to emphasise that both my speech in Parliament during the railway budget debate and this column are not political screeds for me. They are aimed at offering constructive suggestions for an institution I care for enormously.
My focus today will be on passenger fares. When Mamata Banerjee was railway minister, both in the Vajpayee government and in the UPA II government, she resisted pressure to sharply increase passenger fares. This was no populism; there was logic to it. She felt railway assets and services could be optimised, rationalised and monetised in such a manner as to minimise the burden on rail passengers. After all, the train is the only conceivable means of long-distance or commuter transport for millions in our country.
This year, the railway minister says there is a deficit of Rs30,000 crore in passenger fare earnings. That is, the Indian Railways is losing Rs30,000 crore a year in ferrying passengers. Our assessment is the actual figure is no more than Rs7,000 to Rs8,000 crore. Why? It all goes back to 1921, when the Acworth Committee was set up under Sir William Acworth, a senior and respected British railway economist. The committee made many recommendations, including the segregation of railway finances from the rest of government finances. In 1925, this led to the institution of the railway budget, as distinct from the general budget.
The principles and the template of the Acworth Committee are still with us. They determine, for instance, the way passenger fares are calculated. The heads are the same as those put down by Sir William in 1921. If you update them and modernise the calculation system, the actual loss from passenger fares could turn out to be much smaller than is believed.
My friends in the BJP and the NDA may well ask why I didn’t say this earlier and why Mamata Banerjee didn’t do this when she was railway minister. It is a fair question. Maybe the spirit was strong but the flesh was weak, and other development works took precedence. Yet, somewhere in the coming five or ten years, we need to update the report of the Acworth Committee.
There is another point I would like to make. The government has spoken a lot about the advances made by China in terms of its railway network. China rarely, if ever, touches base fares; it hikes, and hikes appreciably, higher-class fares. In India, 95 per cent of passengers are ordinary, poor commuters who pay what may be called the base fare. Can we afford to burden them?
This is not the fare way or even the fair way. It is not even the Chinese way. More on these tracks in a subsequent column.