Rail Budget: Populism v/s elitism

Minister for Railways Sadananda Gowda has followed in the footsteps of illustrious predecessors by proclaiming that the railways need an immediate course correction to stem the bleeding. But certain illustrious predecessors like Lalu Prasad Yadav are outraged at the new course being set. The quintessentially Indian earthen teacup which he had tried to popularise is history. If stations are shined up until they look like airport terminals, nothing but branded styrofoam would suffice. The rail budget is being hailed as the end of populism, and it does convey the impression that government policy will change from pleasing the multitude to pleasing the few – the few who can fund elections, have a stake in policymaking, and would not dream of drinking elaichi tea out of little earthen cups. That’s possibly worse than populism.

 However, a mixed story could play out. For instance, as India urbanises rapidly, short-haul high-speed trains between cities could ease the pain. In the national capital region, if there were fast trains connecting Delhi and Meerut or Roorkee, the urban sprawl of the National Capital Region would be decongested, as professionals would prefer to live in roomier homes far from the big city. If fast trains connected Mumbai and Nashik, there would be a housing boom in Nashik and Mumbai would breathe easier. It’s a masala version of the American Dream.

 But this logic applies to the well-off and the gainfully employed. Their comfort might be secured at the expense of the poor, who have leveraged the railways to better their lot, riding the rails to follow employment opportunities all over the country. A state’s employment status is inversely proportional to the number of its poor employed as domestic workers or daily wage earners in the big cities.

 We know that Malda in West Bengal is struggling because far too many of its people work in Delhi’s homes. We know that despite the numerous successes attributed to Tamil Nadu, including school education powered by midday meals, the state could be floundering a bit because a high proportion of its people do menial work in the capital. The real impact of the railways is social, though it is expressed in economic terms – even counter-economic terms. It has liberally conferred mobility of labour, which has brought decent livings to poor states and districts by money order. It was leveraged by people who travel cheap, or for free. Almost everyone knows of someone who arrived in Mumbai ticketless and made a decent life for themselves. So if the quest for better service is at the cost of the social role of the railways, the electorate will take silent note. And 2019 will not bring more achhe din.

In a manner of speaking, the railway budget has just begun. Because many of the proposals in the budget speech are old hat, and the real test will be execution. As in other ministries, like that for the environment and forests, the rail ministry has shone the light of transparency on ongoing projects by committing to put their progress online. This amounts to public oversight, and is likely to have a salutary effect on a ministry whose intentions are often political, to be proclaimed but not carried out. Wonder how people will react, though, when they find that some of the fine pronouncements of this rail budget are echoes of the voices of governments past.

 For instance, the idea of a Diamond Quadrilateral of high-speed tracks is not altogether new. It clones Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Golden Quadrilateral of highways. Good work was done by both his government and the UPA governments that followed, and the increase in transport efficiencies helped industry enormously. The common man benefited too – food inflation may have gone altogether out of control without the high-speed movement of fresh produce enabled by new highways.

 But let us not forget that the same Golden Quadrilateral also foregrounded the urgent need for whistleblower protection laws. It was the murder of Satyendra Dubey, Koderma project director of the National Highways Authority of India, that made it inevitable. It was one of several disturbing cases, whose cumulative force eventually powered the public movement against corruption and catapulted the Aam Aadmi Party to prominence. Apart from the Golden Quadrilateral’s economic impact, it packed a political punch.

 What do faster trains mean to the Indian imagination? Given the stupendously bad track record of the Indian Railways, it means a faster death. The most urgent need of the railways is safety automation, not wi-fi or offices on wheels, which were in the news even before the rail budget. India does almost all of its communicating on mobile internet, even on trains. If the rather heavy investment required to lease onboard satellite dishes were reapplied to improving mobile infrastructure in towns and villages along the tracks, the social return on investment would be huge.

And offices on wheels… do we really need them in the networked age, when the spot where you put down your laptop and your mobile phone serves as your office?

 Finally, one had expected a rational policy on railway land use to emerge in this budget, but Gowda has only spoken of the need to computer-map the huge land holdings, so that they can be commercialised more efficiently. This is not a gigantic leap over the efforts of the Rail Land Development Authority, which has been on the job for eight years. Much of the railway’s vacant land is adjacent to tracks in rural areas, and the most obvious use is agriculture. In fact, market gardening has been attempted on a small scale in some stations, by leasing cultivation rights to the local farmers.  It’s a fine idea which, if mainstreamed, would help to combat food inflation.

  But the focus of this budget lies far away from the hinterland, and it seeks to impress with food courts in big stations, mineral water on tap and IVR complaints for the dissatisfied. India does not live in corporate offices alone. We must also serve those who have been waiting patiently for a better future in the villages, small towns and urban slums. We cannot ignore more than half the citizens of the land who live less privileged lives.

 To be fair, our railways treat every life with equal indifference. If it respected human life, it would choose as its first, second and third focus areas: safety, safety and safety. That’s the basic service, and everyone is ready to pay for it. It is unforgivable that the railways are ignoring this basic requirement – the protection from bodily harm and death – and focussing instead on fancy bullet trains and corporate lifestyles on rails.

 Antara Dev Sen is Editor The Little Magazine. Email: sen@littlemag.com

 Antara Dev Sen

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