The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The author is retired financial adviser, ministry of railways

Do you remember that classic tale of five blind men describing an elephant, each by the portion of the animal he had felt' The story of the creation of 7 additional zones and 8 divisions in the Indian Railways is very similar.

The blunder that is being committed is gigantic and will do the nation incalculable damage in about 5 years’ time, when none of the perpetrators of this act will be around. Nitish Kumar, the minister for railways, is the first of the proverbial blind men who thought that creating a zone at Hajipur will be a scratch on the elephant’s back. So deeper scratches followed, and the enjoyment was shared with states ruled by the Biju Janata Dal, the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party so that there was not a murmur of protest.

The second blind man is the prime minister himself, who thought that the promise of a railway zone in Bilaspur would fetch him votes in Chhattisgarh. The third blind person is Mamata Banerjee who protested only the bifurcation of Eastern Railway, but not so much that of South Eastern Railway, which really is the heart of the Indian Railways. She desperately tried to keep the door to the cabinet open, dropping ridiculous hints that she would be happy if the Dhanbad division was returned to Eastern Railway, and thus played into the hands of the wily Bharatiya Janata Party-Samata Party combine.

The fourth blind man is Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who did not really know what to do in the emerging scenario. He too did not see beyond Eastern and South Eastern Railway, and had to play the game of one-upmanship on Mamata Banerjee. His confusion became complete when he sought to make the state government a party in the special leave petition filed by the various railway federations in the Supreme Court. He made no demands that the cabinet decision be debated in Parliament, where his party has a sizeable presence. The last blind person is L.K. Advani, who did not even question why such a move was opposed earlier by a series of committees and experts, and treated this as a mere Nitish Kumar versus Banerjee game.

The five blind persons played their roles to perfection. But what does the real elephant look like, or, what are the damaging effects of the bifurcation' There are many, but the main ones can be enumerated under 3 broad categories — operation, finance and manpower.

A zone is like a state within the railways, and the operational boundaries are like borders. Permission to cross these borders require various tiers of processing, which in turn cause delays in the smooth flow of traffic. It is about one to 2 hours delay for every zonal interchange for a goods train, and 30 minutes to one hour delay for a passenger train. So for transporting coal from the Bengal collieries to the Ropar Thermal Plant in Punjab, the train has now to pass through 4 railways instead of the present 2, and the time taken would increase from 54 to 60 hours. This would mean delays, a larger fleet of wagons, and at least 10 per cent increase in track capacity to take the resultant additional trains. As these cannot be provided overnight, coal movement to the plants will become irregular and may even stop sometimes. These problems will have cascading effects on essential commodities like foodgrains, raw materials for core industries and so on. Similarly, a passenger train running from Howrah to Jodhpur will now pass through 5 railways instead of the present 2, and this will make late running of trains almost chronic.

Even the operational jurisdiction has been worked out without logic. There is no way the general manager of the East Central Railway at Hajipur could reach the accident site at Rafigunj quickly, unless he crossed the Ganga to take a train from Patna. This is under normal circumstances. Given the way the railway board functions with only 9 zones, one can expect the worst when it has to coordinate the activities of 16.

The financial effect of the creation of additional zones and divisions will ultimately cripple the railways. The railway budget presented in February 2002 presented neither a rosy financial health, nor recorded any emergency requiring creation of 7 additional zones with such suddenness within 4 months. Even the status paper, brought out as late as May 2002, talked about progressive deterioration of railway finances. The railway ministry also answered questions in Parliament to the effect that regrouping of zones was not being considered because of paucity of funds. From where then did the capital of Rs 1,000 crore materialize within two months to be invested in a totally non-priority area'

For the last 5 years there has not been adequate contribution to the various railway funds, while there has been generous withdrawals from them. Naturally, the balances have dropped from Rs 3,565 crores in 1998 to only Rs 275 crores in March 2000. There is no doubt that the railways have to increase its contribution to the various funds in the immediate future to sustain at least the present level of activity. Second, it has to internally generate Rs 5,000 crore in 5 years for the safety fund (the other Rs 12,500 crore will come from the general exchequer). Third, it has also to generate enough resources not to cut down on its plan size. Fourth, it has to raise at least Rs 1,000 crore for the additional 7 zones. And finally, the railways has to increase its stock and line capacity to keep the trains moving. All this while it has to remember that market borrowings and increase in the fare and freight structures has reached nearly saturation point.

Where will the money come from' It has to be from the general exchequer, which obviously means substantial doses of taxation and rise in prices of essential commodities. Could not the country do without a totally unnecessary investment in creation of new zones'

There is another problem. Though the railway minister has stated that the 7 zones would be made operative from the existing staff strength, the ground realities do not support him. On an average, a zonal headquarter has about 2,500 staff and 500 officers. Though a convoluted exercise for determining the requirement of the newly created smaller zones is presently on, let us assume it will be around 1,500 staff and 300 officers. Ideally, they should be transferred from the headquarters of the zones from which the new entities are being carved. But with the chief minister of West Bengal and Banerjee hardening their stance on Eastern and South Eastern railways, and the railway unions objecting to transfer of staff, the transfer will be anything but smooth.

The result will be that a truncated Eastern or Central railway will continue to have excess staff while for Hajipur or Allahabad, extra posts will necessarily have to be created. Thus the staff costs, which already constitutes 50 per cent of the railway receipts, will further increase disproportionately. But even if posts are created, the expertise developed in the zonal railways will not be available to the new zones.

But why was all this done at all' There is no answer. But let us see what history has to say. In 1947, there were 42 railway systems, and only six zones. Three more zones were created between 1952 to 1966. In 1984, the railway board agreed to the creation of only one zone at Ajmer for the metre gauge system. With massive conversions to broad gauge even that rationale is gone now. Incidentally, the railway reforms committee observed that territorial, ethnic, linguistic or such other considerations should never be the basis for reorganization. The railway convention committee of 1996, the fifth pay commission report of 1997 and the comptroller and auditor general report of 2001 are all against creation of new zones. Even the railway board, in a note in November 2001, cautioned against such a move.

In the last two decades, the United States of America has reduced its 40 coordination centres to only 6. The railways’ own status paper mentions that China has cut down its bureaus and divisions by 30 and 45 per cent respectively, and invested the money in adding new lines each year.

And yet, against all such odds, a decision has been taken to create 7 additional zones in the railways. There is no doubt that if Nitish Kumar did not hail from Bihar, and Hajipur was not the constituency of Ram Vilas Paswan, this gigantic farce would not have been played out at all. The drama is not over yet as the have-nots like Jharkhand, Haryana, Kerala, and so on are waiting to jump into the fray.

But yet it may not be too late. If Hajipur and Bihar have to be given something, give them a big repair or manufacturing shop which will generate both real employment and ancillary industries. Let it be debated in Parliament as to what is more necessary now: an accident free and safe rail travel, or creation of additional zones. Hopefully, common sense will prevail over a thoughtless populist move.

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