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Suresh Prabhu offers to quit: How Modi & his Sherpa are destroying railways

Aditya Menon | Updated on: 23 August 2017, 19:31 IST

On the morning of 19 August, India's Twitter-savvy Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu retweeted a tweet by Western Railway, which said that "Indian Railways is surging ahead under the leadership of Shri Suresh Prabhu, who is rated among the top performing ministers (in the Union Cabinet)”.

Prabhu's joy proved to be shortlived as the same evening, the Kalinga-Utkal Express derailed in Khatauli near Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. According to reports, at least 23 people were killed in the accident and 156 injured. 

On 23 August, 10 coaches of the Kaifiyat Express derailed near Auraiya in Uttar Pradesh, injuring around 100 passengers. 

Two major accidents had taken place within the space of four days. 23 people had been killed and over 250 injured in both the accidents combined. 

As a result of these two accidents, Suresh Prabhu is said to have met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, taking moral responsibility for the accidents. Barely five days after he hailed himself as one of the best performing ministers in the Union government, Prabhu offered his resignation. 

Prabhu claims that PM has asked him to "wait". The problem is that the PM can't let Prabhu go as there is a serious talent crunch in the Union government. It is being speculated that at most, he could be shifted to another ministry when Modi carries out the long overdue Cabinet reshuffle. 

Meanwhile, Air India CMD Ashwani Lohani has been appointed the chairman of the Railway Board. He is said to have presided over a efficient period in Northern Railways at the turn of the decade. 

Congress attacks Prabhu

The Congress has gone for Prabhu's jugular, claiming that he has been an abject failure as Railway Minister. Here's some of the important data cited by Congress' media in-charge Randeep Singh Surjewala. 

  • 28 major railway accidents have taken place under the Modi government
  • 259 people have been killed and 973 people have been injured in these accidents.
  • The death toll from train derailments in 2016-17 is the highest in a decade.
  • 40% of 1219 line-sections of the Indian Railways are congested beyond capacity. It is even worse in 247 high density line sections.
  • 42 lakh safety-related posts remain vacant.
  • Modi government has increased rail fares by more than 70%. Railways charges Rs 50 extra for lower berth reservations. Even the price of platform tickets has increased. Freight prices have increased by 20% each year.
  • In the last fiscal, railways posted the worst operating ratio in 16 years
  • Railways has missed earnings targets and earnings actually dipped by 2.15% between 2015 and 2016.

Did Modi and Prabhu ignore railway safety?

The simple question that the consumers would be asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prabhu is: if the public is constantly being asked to pay more to the railways, why are people still dying in railway accidents? Why do trains not run on time? Why is there no marked improvement in the quality of services in the railways?

Modi and Prabhu will no doubt try to showcase the work they have done, but it won’t answer these fundamental questions. For instance, on 19 August, Prabhu tweeted a picture of a mobile accessing railway WiFi at Barabanki station in Uttar Pradesh. The choice of the state was perhaps no coincidence as it is India’s most politically crucial state, one that sent Modi to the Lok Sabha and Prabhu to the Rajya Sabha. But then on the same day, in the same state, a railway accident killed 23 people – exposing the shortcomings of the Modi-Prabhu model of running the railways.

“If PM Modi can spend Rs 1 lakh crore on a bullet train he promised between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, why can’t he allocate Rs 40,000 crore for railway safety?” asked Surjewala, questioning Modi and Prabhu’s priorities.

There have been news reports which say that the number of accidents per se has gone down in the past three years.  But it cannot be denied that in terms of casualties, Prabhu’s tenure, particularly the last one year, has been the deadliest in years.

According to a Huffington Post India report published after the derailment of the Jagdalpur-Bhubaneswar Hirakhand Express near Vizianagaram in January this year, over 180 people had died in rail accidents in 2016-17, the highest since 2010. And in terms of train derailments, the casualties are the highest in 17 years, the report said.

Where Modi and Prabhu need to take the blame is in their priorities for the railways. It was clear from the beginning that Modi-Prabhu duo’s main priorities are to reduce costs, increase revenue by hiking ticket and freight prices, invest in a few mega projects and promote Public Private Partnerships.

In the process railway safety appears to have taken a hit, particularly in the name of cutting costs. According to reports, in his 2015 Budget, Prabhu may have trimmed allocation of funds for the Depreciation Reserve Fund (DRF), which is meant for replacing crucial assets such as railway tracks. Apparently the cuts were as high as 60%.

The Union government tried to rectify this in this year’s Budget, the first budget in which railways was subsumed under the general budget. It proposed a non-lapsable fund called the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh, with a corpus of Rs 20,000 crore. Rs 15,000 crore is supposed to be provided by the finance ministry and Rs 5,000 crore is supposed to come from the railway’s own surplus.

But interestingly, out of the Rs 55,000 crore budgetary support for the railways, Railways is supposed to raise as much as 40% through PPP, again reflecting Modi and Prabhu’s priorities.

It won’t be surprising if the government uses safety concerns to increase the involvement of private players in railways. For instance, the Train Protection and Warning System being used by Southern Railways, has been provided by French firm Thales.

Prabhu, therefore, cannot be seen in isolation. He represents Modi’s policy thrust of cutting costs and bringing in private players. It is because of this policy thrust that several media houses have consistently hailed Prabhu as one of the best performing ministers in Modi’s Cabinet, despite the mounting death toll under his watch. There’s no point removing Prabhu when the broader policy framework is going to remain the same.

First published: 23 August 2017, 19:31 IST