Last week, the Indian Railways invited proposals from private companies to run 151 passenger trains on 109 pairs of routes across the country. The project would entail private sector investment of about Rs. 30,000 crore and is said to be done as an initiative to introduce modern technology rolling stock with reduced maintenance, reduced transit time, boost job creation, provide enhanced safety, reduce demand supply deficit in the passenger transportation sector and provide a world class travel experience to passengers.
Ministry of Railways has invited Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for private participation for operation of passenger train services over 109 Origin Destination(OD) pairs of routes through introduction of 151 modern Trains (Rakes).https://t.co/rUyBpOidQQ pic.twitter.com/ORSLx2w7zX
— Ministry of Railways (@RailMinIndia) July 1, 2020
The Union government has said that the private entity shall have the freedom to decide on the fare to be charged from its passengers and it shall be free to procure trains and locomotives from a source of its choice. It has also said that the scheduled maintenance of the trains will take place after a run of 40,000 kms. The project also proposes that no similar train will depart in the same origin two destination route within 60 minutes of the Scheduled Operation of the Concessionaires Train.
This program of the Indian Railways will be executed by 2023 and the proposal has garnered interest from Adani Ports, Tata Realty and Infrastructure, Essel Group, Bombardier India and Macquarie Group, Moneycontrol reported. Adani Ports today owns one of the largest private railway lines in India, one which spans 300 km and connects ports and other business hubs for cargo movement. It also set up its own subsidiary to focus on metro rail projects. In 2018, EsselInfraprojects Ltd won the first railway project for Rs 17.06 billion on the Eastern Freight Corridor connecting Howrah and Chennai mainline. In May, Bombardier India won the contract to supply 210 commuter and metro cars for the Delhi-Meerut Regional Rapid Transit System.
The announcement of the privatisation of these trains came after the Railway Minister had earlier continued to vehemently deny that the Railwayswould beprivatised. Chairman of the Railway Board, Vinod Kumar Yadav, put out a video, probably in a bid to pacify passengers and railway unions, saying that 95 percent of the trains will be run by the Indian Railways and all their ticket prices will be fixed by the Indian Railways. He went on to say that private trains would only be an additional facility for passengers and fill in a deficit which is currently not being met by the Indian Railways. Through the video he keeps repeating that the common man will benefit from this and there will be no rise in ticket prices, but instead people will be able to avail better facilities.
भारतीय रेल द्वारा 151 निजी ट्रेनों के संचालन से यात्रियों के लिये ट्रेनों में सीटों की उपलब्धता बढेगी, इस विस्तार से रोजगार का सृजन होगा, यात्रियों को अच्छी सुविधा मिलेगी :
अध्यक्ष रेलवे बोर्ड, श्री विनोद कुमार यादव pic.twitter.com/IlKZIFe9qa
— Ministry of Railways (@RailMinIndia) July 4, 2020
However, there seems to be a discrepancy in this announcement given that the private players will be allowed to fix their own fares. Not just this, the Railway Ministry has also put out a tweet saying that it is not going to surrender any safety category posts required for train operations & maintenance. It had asked for a ‘review’ and freezing of jobs in the non-safety category posts, saying that it was ‘rightsizing’ and not ‘downsizing’.
Indian Railways is not going to surrender any safety category posts required for train operations & maintenance
Review is been done only for non safety category vacant posts so that addl. safety posts can be created for new Rly. Infra. Projects being developed at fast speed
— Ministry of Railways (@RailMinIndia) July 3, 2020
However, the non-safety category posts include thousands of employees who work as a peon, account clerk, steno, helpers, teacher, hospital attendant, hospital cleaner, cook, painter, fitter, mason, chowkidar and lab assistants among others. Newsclick reported that following the directive, many zones had started downsizing or holding recruitment, thereby affecting thousands.
Hence, to understand the on-ground ramifications of this announcement, Sabrang India spoke to Venu Nair, General Secretary of the National Railways Mazdoor Union. Nair said, “It has always been noted that Prime Minister Modi and Railway Minister PiyushGoyal have time and again said that privatisation of Indian Railways will not take place. Now that the truth is out, more than the people employed with the Indian Railways, I am concerned about the people from lower sections of the society. If this privatisation takes place, people who are using trains now, will not be able to do so in the future. For example, Mumbai’s local trains run on the harbour line, central line, western line, etc. and we charge nominally, around 18 paise per kilometer for tickets. In the same city, you have Ambani’s Metro Rail which charges almost Rs. 4 per km. Our trains run at 100 kmph while the Metro runs at 60kmph. Nobody can enter the Metro without a ticket or any concession, while Indian Railways offers concessions in more than 100 categories – for the media, senior citizens, army men, cancer patients, HIV patients, the differently abled, for children, for policemen and more. This is because we are Indian Railways. If this is privatised, do you think these concessions will remain? Where will the poor people go and how will they travel? People come from far-flung areas to the city to work as they can rely on trains which are the cheapest, safest and most reliable mode of transport. How will they travel?”
Explaining the precarious implications of the GOI’s decision, he added, “If you remember, the Railway Minister had announced a plan to convert the Central Locomotive Parel Workshop into a terminus. This workshop has been existing since the time of the British and holds assets of about 1,100 crores. Around 3,000 people work there and the government wants to finish it off? Why does Parel need a terminus? Mumbai is so congested. There are already five termini here – LokmanyaTilak Terminus, Bandra Terminus, Dadar Terminus, Bombay Central and Victoria Terminus and they want to make another one? For whom do they want to make it? If it’s for the benefit of IR and people of Maharashtra, we don’t have a problem. Most of the trains coming from the northeast and southeast directions to Mumbai, empty out (almost 60-70 percent) at Kalyan. If the government is so concerned, it should make a terminus there. Who is going to benefit with a terminus at Parel?”
“Nobody wants to listen to us or understand our point. If you remove our good routes and give it to a private entity it will only benefit the corporates. What will happen to the poor? The Tejas train that was run from Lucknow to Delhi is run on the same route that the Indian Railways’ Shatabdi Express runs on. The Shatabdi Express stops at 5 stations, while the Tejas stops at 3 stations. Our Shatabdi train, after stopping at 5 stations, takes just 5 minutes more to reach Delhi and the Tejas train charges twice the amount for lesser service. The profit is earned by the corporates but if the Tejas train is late, there is an arrangement made that the IR will pay passengers Rs. 100 if the train is late for an hour or Rs. 200 if the train is late for 2 hours. Why should the loss be borne by the IR if the profit is enjoyed by the corporates? Even for the Tejas they had said that no train would train 30 minutes before or after the Tejas train arrives and departs – was this to put the trains we’re proud of running, into the bin?” asked Nair.
Talking about unemployment issues, Nair said, “Indian Railways is the biggest employer. Our PM says we have more than 20 crore unemployed youth in the country. Don’t they need jobs? If you kill the Indian Railways, how will these youth get jobs? Even the Class IV employees in the IR get at least Rs. 25,000 as salary. Shouldn’t we give them a chance in such government institutions? The government wants to finish such jobs and employ 3 people for Rs. 8,000 each and say we provided employment. But what other security benefits will such people get? If you give all benefits and ensure that a person can manage their lives in a dignified way, we will understand. But Rs. 8,000 is not enough to survive. I don’t understand why the government is discriminating against the poor and the working class?”
He also pointed out, “Today, during the pandemic, apart from the media, all those working on the ground are government employees – banks, police, trains, frontline workers, etc. Had the unions not protested privatisation from the start, the IR would’ve already been privatised by now. The government is taking all the credit for the return of migrant workers back to their homes. If the trains had been privatised, would these migrants have ever returned home? Today, the IR has made special coaches to treat people in the pandemic. Would the private players do so? This is something to think about.”
“I think the fight we’re going to undertake next, shouldn’t just be for the employees of the IR, but actually ensure that IR lives and exists for the public. If the people fight with us, we will definitely be successful. I am not worried about this generation of employees in the IR, but the next generation. The government has issued circulars to all zones to surrender 50 percent of all non-security related vacancies. What does this mean? It means you’re eating up the jobs of the future generation. For each vacancy lost, one person loses employment,” he added.
Speaking about the safety compromises, Nair said, “Our coaches are maintained after every 4,000 km. But now it is said that with the coming of private entities, the trains will be maintained after a run of 40,000 kms. This is where the safety will be compromised. You will not require people to look after operations there. Sometime ago, a boulder had fallen on one of the tracks in the southeast direction during the rains. The government had removed personnel who used to specifically look at operations on these tracks and replaced them with CCTVs. But a CCTV will tell you that the boulder has already fallen. But those people who have lived their life studying those tracks used to alert us of any disasters. In other countries, technology is upgraded because there’s no manpower there. Here we don’t need privatisation because unlike other countries, we don’t have a shortage of passengers. There’s a shortfall of trains, which we can make too.”
Making a scathing statement against the government, Nair said, “The government sees railway employees as a liability because they have to offer benefits and listen to the unions who fight for the rights of the people. They want people who will just listen to them and exploit them. This is a well-planned strategy. In 1999-2000, during the Vajpayee government, there was a Rakesh Mohan Committee that said that the non-core activities of the Railways should be privatised. As per them, only drivers and operating departments like station masters came under core activities. We had started opposition then itself. Then came the BibekDebroy Committee during PM Modi’s regime that coaches and locomotives too could be privatised to increase competition. What competition are they talking about? Making men and women stand at the entrances of private trains to greet passengers is this what privatisation is about? Are these people even given money or are they treated like contract labourers? This even goes against our ethics, dressing up young women and touting them to be airhostesses just for customers.”
Concluding on a concerned note Nair said, “I fear that in the coming years, the services for the poor and middle class will be eliminated altogether. Maybe the suburban services will be shut. The Metro railway is like an alternative arrangement being set up. If people say we have no way to travel, the government will point out to the Metro and say there is. We can only protest now. I think the Railways should have nominally increased the fare as it would help maintain our infrastructure and other services. If we call for an increase in prices, there’s a protest and I’m sure these protests aren’t done by passengers. This is done by those who want to keep their vote bank. I will keep fighting till I can. Not fighting means you don’t have love for the railways or your country or the future generation.”
While the disparity between what is being said and what is happening on ground is stark, what is of more concern is the cultural divide this decision is going to bring about. Currently, the private entities may only be given 5 percent, it will be no surprise if this number balloons in the future, and this, coupled with exorbitant fares will only further push the underprivileged on the fringes of society.