Indian Railways never really had a chance. The latest tantrum by India's most negative ruler, Mamata Banerjee, may be unprecedented in that she is the first party boss to publicly disown her own minister. But it is not the first instance of politics devastating the Railways.
To see what the Railways has missed, just look at any listing of India's biggest companies by net sales. At the very top usually is the Indian Oil Corporation. Immediately behind will be Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum. Among the top ten will be Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, Metals and Minerals Corporation and Coal India. There is a common link among these giants: They are all Government of India undertakings. Another common link: They are all autonomous, run by professionals.
So, too, are the National Thermal Power Corporation, Steel Authority of India, Bharat Heavy Electricals, Gas Authority of India. Of course politicians try to interfere in their affairs, but the autonomy of the corporations ensures that the interference does not seriously damage the functioning of the companies. In other words, public sector companies can indeed compete in this commercial world and be counted among the highest performers in the country.
That is what Indian Railways, too, could have done. Its size and the advantages it enjoys as a monopoly put it in a class of its own. It is the world's fourth largest network (in kilometre terms) after the US, Russia and China. It is the envy of others in terms of passengers and freight carried. But it is run, unlike IOC, ONGC et al, as a departmental activity. This has reduced it to the pitiable plight of Air-India, another national treasure ruined by politicians. Indian Railways is the only public sector undertaking which has a minister presenting a separate budget of its own every year. This uniqueness has become a measure of deterioration over the years.
Perhaps the priorities got misaligned on account of what we inherited. There were 42 separate rail systems at the time of independence. Railway Minister N Gopalaswamy Ayyangar, one of the ablest administrators India had known, focussed his skills on weaving the many companies into an integrated zonal grid. If he and Prime Minister Nehru had also thought of professionalising the network under an autonomous structure, the story would have been different.
In the hands of politicians, the Railways became a plaything to be tossed around and exploited for private gains. At one time Suresh Kalmadi – yes, he of the Commonwealth Shames – was the Railway Minister (1995-96). Need anything more be said? Lal Bahadur Shastri's term is remembered only for his resignation after three horrible accidents. Not remembered for anything are the regimes of Congress veterans like Jagjivan Ram, Kamalapathi Tripathy and Swaran Singh. Two ministers, Ghani Khan Chowdhury and Jaffar Sherief, became known for the favours they bestowed upon their own flocks.
Lalu Prasad's term, ironically, was noted for some significant progress. The reason was that he had neither the time nor the interest to pay any attention to the Railways. It was a time when Bihar politics was on the boil and Lalu was straining every nerve to keep his hold. Politics in Patna so obsessed him that he told an officer of the Railway ministry to run the show in Delhi. Untrammelled by politicians, the officer performed wonders.
The lesson is obvious. But to expect Indian Railways to be turned into an autonomous corporation will be like expecting Air-India to be returned to the Tatas. But the opportunity is there for all to see. It may be scary to look at the impossible crowds of humanity that throng into Mumbai's suburban trains, or the concourses of Chennai Central and Howrah stations. But the overflowing multitudes also point to the size of the 'market'. If only we had a professional set up that could efficiently manage this enormous potential – and the hundreds of station buildings that are real estate gold – the Railways could become a driver of India's progress instead of the ignominy it is today.