The Indian Railways are an essential part of the economy of the country, knitting together its diverse regions and ensuring the movement of goods and passengers in a cost-effective manner. It speaks volumes for the strength of Railways’ tradition that has survived decades of maladministration by ministers uninterested in any objective barring personal gain. Several Railway Ministers have sought to convert the vast organisation into a personal fief, sanctioning lines to locations where viable operations are impossible. They have used the powers given to them in order to ensure the entry of thousands of their followers into the network, few of whom have the skills or the inclination to make a success of operations. Senior officers are given targets for recruitment of hangers-on, and have their careers blighted, should they refuse to comply. Next-door China has witnessed an expansion of high-speed rail, such that most parts of the country are now covered by high-speed networks, even more so than is the case in the United States, where the railway system has suffered the same neglect as much of other essential infrastructure. In contrast, India still has among the slowest rail speeds of any major economy. Of course, it must be said that travel by rail is still relatively cheaper than it is in several other countries. The price of petrol and diesel in India may be much higher than is prevalent in neighbouring countries, but in the case of rail travel, India is a leader in providing this service at low cost. However, there is a need to ensure not only that ticket and freight rates be remunerative, but that the involvement of mafias in railway operations cease, especially concerning the freight of substances such as coal. Unfortunately, although the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of thousands of railway employees are honest and hard working, there are some who are crooks, and unfortunately, it is such elements that have usually enjoyed political patronage. Ridding Indian Railways of such corrupt elements is a precondition for making the network a force multiplier for progress in 21st century India. Over the past three years, the Narendra Modi government has speeded up the process of reform and reconstruction of the railway network. Several innovations have been introduced, including pricing of tickets in a way that better meets the need for financial solvency. Rail Minister Suresh Prabhu has a well-deserved reputation for probity. Indeed, it was this quality that led to his resignation from the A.B. Vajpayee Cabinet, when some of the leaders in his then party were dismayed that Energy Minister Prabhu was not making any contribution to the party coffers. To their minds, power was of no use unless converted to gain for the party through a hefty rise in the amount of funds available for deployment.
Such reforms have not been popular with the many vested interests sheltering within the vast railway system. The mafias who for long have been getting privileged service through contacts within the Railways are particularly upset. The money that used to flow to them is now more and more coming to the exchequer, which is where it belongs. The corrupt within the network are unhappy at the way in which there has been a vigorous drive to clear away the nests of graft and to introduce transparency and accountability. There is need to do much more. Recent incidents involving heavy loss of life have shown that much more work is needed before the Indian Railways can function with the efficiency and freedom from corruption that people expect of the organisation. Such incidents only underscore the need to continue with vigour on the path that has been attempted over the past three years, of cleansing the railway network of accumulated rot. The resignation of the Railway Minister will not accomplish such a task. Instead, it may embolden those forces that seek to perpetuate the bad old ways of functioning in this most crucial part of the country’s infrastructure. What needs to be done is for Prime Minister Modi to redouble the efforts already being made to ensure the cleansing of the stables of Indian Railways, so that passengers and the economy benefit from an efficient, honest system free of the malpractices imposed by successive Railway Ministers who allowed the institution to descend to is present state.