governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for the ‘Infrastructure’ Category

Indian Railways: Slow and unsafe

suresh prabhu

It seems to be raining rail accidents these days, with two in swift succession. The hapless Suresh Prabhu is a good general but an unlucky one. He made sweeping changes in Indian railways (IR) since November 2014 when he became Minister. Most dramatic was his willingness to diminish his “empire” by merging the rail budget with the national budget. Similarly, far reaching was his delegation of financial powers for purchase and contracts away from the moribund Railway Board to the General Managers of the sixteen different railway systems which manage operations. Good management practise, yes. But more importantly it severed the ministerial potential for graft. Not many ministers have done similarly elsewhere.

Suresh Prabhu – a good but unlucky minister

Mr Prabhu has offered to resign owning up moral responsibility. Prime Minister Modi may have to let him go, reluctantly. Such is the dharma of politics. Having another accident on his watch would be unacceptable! Of course accidents are unlikely to stop merely by replacing the minister. Data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau records that in 2014 IR suffered 28,360 accidents or 78 accidents per day. So the chances of an accident happening, anytime, are high.

IR is low on transparency 

IR would have us believe otherwise. In a document titled “Transforming Railways, Transforming India” issued in 2016, reviewing achievements since 2014, the number of accidents over the period 2009-2014 is mentioned as an average of 135 per year which resulted in 693 deaths. The National Crime Record Bureau data puts the number of deaths from railway accidents in 2014 as 25,006, with an additional 3,882 people injured. The discrepancy between the IR and the NCRB database is due to creative use of data by IR, which reports only “consequential” accidents involving derailments or collisions. The NCRB data is comprehensive and based on the First Information Report filed with the police for all accidents connected with rail travel.

IR not to blame for 62 percent of accidents

To be sure, not all the 25,006 railway accidents in 2014 were due to the fault of IR. 62 percent of these accidents occurred due to “people” error – travellers walking negligently on railway tracks and getting run over or falling from over full trains. But even around 11,000 accidents  year is worrisome.

Rail still safer than road transport

To be fair to IR, their safety record should be compared with the other option available to travelers – road travel. The safety record of road travel is even worse. NCRB data for 2014 records 450,900 road accidents in that year with 141,526 deaths and 477,700 injured. The combined length of the National and State Highways, which carry the bulk of the traffic, is around 220,000 km or twice the length of rail track. The number of accidents however is 16 times more; the number of deaths is 6 times more and the number of injuries is 123 times more. Whilst the safety of road travel is a poor metric to use, it does provide a perspective of the objective conditions, in which IR operates.

Other than the likely moving out of Suresh Prabhu and the resignation of the the Chairman of the Railway Board, the other – more worrisome fall out – is going to be a typical short-term, defensive response of putting safety above all else. No private utility could have survived without doing as much, routinely. Consider,how tangled the Nuclear Power negotiations became when government legislated to put the onus of criminal and civil liability for accidents on the private sector suppliers of nuclear power equipment. But government service providers have more leeway in avoiding criminal action against them for safety lapses.

Safety or speed – a false binary

But the fact is that choosing between fast, modern trains and safe travel is a false binary. The populist, Luddite approach of slowing down the speed of trains, to avoid mishaps, is like asking car owners to go back to Ambassadors to reduce the risk of accidents by traveling slower. Technology allows you to travel both faster and safer. Air travel is for example both faster and safer than road travel. The Hyper Loop, when it arrives, is expected to boost both safety and speed at lower cost. The Indian Railways compete with other means of transport like road and air. It must provide the expected level of speed, convenience, comfort and safety which comparable transport options already embed. It has failed to do that, thereby losing marketshare to road transport over the last two decades.

Just as high-speed highways and the growing network of air routes has changed the way Indians travel, the Railways must also offer a bouquet of services to suit the differentiated needs of specific routes and category of customers. High-speed, premium railway transport on high-density routes radiating out from the hubs of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai can transform travel by rail. Similarly, the rapid expansion of metro lines is a smart option to reduce the urban carbon footprint and road congestion.

Both speed and safety are a function of reliable track infrastructure adequately insulated for unregulated traffic ingress and suitable rolling stock. The planned high speed, dedicated, rail traffic corridors intend to achieve precisely these objectives – much like expressways do in highways.

Sans investment, neither safety nor speed is possible

None of this — speed, safety or security — is possible, unless we step up investment in Indian Railways. We cannot manage the 108,000 km of track and 11,000 trains which run daily, by jugaad, penny pinching, dodgy maintenance schedules and techniques, antiquated rolling stock, poorly trained and equipped personnel and management systems, which have not changed since the first train ran in 1853.

Corporatize IR for efficiency enhancement

Indian Railways must be corporatized so that it can shine like other public-sector companies like National Thermal Power Corporation, Indian Oil Corporation and Steel Authority of India. This is impossible as a government department because the administrative and financial rules are unsuited to the dynamics of running a business.

rail repair

Shun politics – Let IR become commercially viable

Railway tariff cannot be subject to politics. The same passenger who has no problem paying Re 1 per km for bus travel between cities pays just 28 paise per km of second class, rail travel and 45 paise per km in reserved sleeper class. Suburban rail travellers pay just 18 paise per km. This is an unsustainable and unnecessary subsidy, undeservedly enjoyed, mostly by the middle class. Rail tariff for non-AC travel must be increased to remunerative levels, thereby generating funds for improving the quality of services.

The spate of accidents has focused public attention on the need to restructure IR. What needs to be done is well known – using technology across the service delivery chain – track development and maintenance; signaling; rolling stock; communication; disaster relief and management systems. But none of this will happen unless Indian Railways is set free from the bureaucratic constraints which bind down its management cadres today. We can save lives, reduce the fiscal burden, improve rail services and make the economy more efficient by corporatizing IR.  Time to walk the talk on good economics also being good politics.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, August 24, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/240817/making-trains-safer-and-faster.html

Fly India, fly

udan-1

Udan — the new regional air connectivity scheme — is not likely to get the aam aadmi (common man) to fly, but it will correct the historical wrong done to the air transport business in India. The hallmark of faux socialism was the targeting of some services and goods as “luxury” and by implication, anti-common man, anti-growth and pro-inequality.

Air transport was one such service. It’s early face was to serve the rich or the privileged. But all this has changed. Indian workers travelling from Etawah in Uttar Pradesh to the Gulf travel by road or rail to Delhi before taking an international flight. Why not facilitate them to fly straight from Etawah to Delhi, thereby securing their luggage end-to-end and avoiding the choking of our inter-state roads?

Udan is refreshingly simple and timely in its objectives. It is not populist even though it is being marketed in that manner. The “hawai chappalwallahs” would prefer to get subsidy in hand rather than as a low-cost air junket. Udan is not about giving the poor a taste of luxury, Evita Peron style.

Air transport for growth and jobs

Udan is about growth and jobs as the policy note avers up front. It quotes the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) that every rupee invested in civil aviation add Rs 3.5 to the economy and every job created directly generates 6.1 jobs indirectly.

udan2

There is no reason to take the ICAO at its word. The ministry has been baking this scheme since November 2014. It should have estimated similar value and job multipliers in the Indian context. That could have better evidenced the benefits from the allocation of public funds on the “value for money” principle. But the economic rationale can be intuitively surmised.

What! India has more airports than commercial planes

There are as many as 398 “unserved” airports which have no commercial flights and 18 “under-served” airports host less than seven flights per week. One may well ask why this large number of airports exist if there are no commercial flights to them and who pays for their upkeep? Anecdotally, these airports have existed for the convenience of the elite political class for their infrequent “in and out” inspections, disaster surveys and election time visits to the hinterland. Less frequently India’s small business elite may also use a few.

Not all of them are owned by the Airports Authority of India (AAI), the Central agency which manages airports. Some are owned by the ministry of defence, others by state governments. It would have helped investors if the policy note had listed the ownership and management of each.

Democratise these public assets

So what are the likely benefits? First, commercialising these 416 airports will “democratise” publicly-owned sites which have hitherto been reserved for elite use. The average citizen would get a participative stake in their use and development. This is a vital aspect that policy note ignores.

udan-3

Rationalise air taxes & spend on infrastructure

Second, the government has rightly slashed taxes and charges on regional connectivity flights to narrow the viability gap. AAI will not charge any landing or parking charge and only 42.5 per cent of the route and navigation facilitation charge. The owners of these airports will similarly exempt such flights from all charges whilst ensuring the full package of airport facilities. Most of these charges are exorbitant in any case and need to be rationalised. Consider that AAI earns a profit after tax of around `800 crores. This surplus is better used for regional air connectivity than to subsidise Air India, which should be privatised.

Kick start new businesses and services in rural areas

Third, whilst Udan is branded as a new passenger facility, an additional business opportunity is the potential for moving existing perishable cargo, fragile goods and high-value export-oriented products by air. It is only a combination of passengers and cargo which can make the scheme sustainable. Public investments should be leveraged via private management model used for major airports. Investor consultations in state capitals being planned should include potential investors in airport management and development.

Fourth, some of the additional economic value and jobs are from developing these airports as growth centres. Providing secure and high quality road links, 24×7 electricity, clean water and sanitation are key for private management to step in with malls, airconditioned warehouses, hotels and new businesses which need secure air connectivity.

udan-4

Udan has got it right.

The Udan policy ticks all the right boxes. It retains the potential for business innovation by limiting the seats at the Udan price to 50 per cent of capacity. The remaining seats can be sold at market rates. Operators shall be chosen competitively via reverse auction for the minimum amount of “viability gap funding” (VGF) required. The policy is carefully and explicitly drafted to avoid ex-post disputes.

The policy is market driven. Flight operators must do their own due diligence and come forward with proposals which would then be put out to bid. If a proposer fails to submit the lowest bid, they could still win by agreeing to match the lowest bid. This provision preserves the incentive for initiating proposals, whilst retaining competitive energy in the bid process. In the past, in roads and telecom, irresponsible bids resulted in projects being abandoned subsequently. Most of these airports are challenges for business development rather than ready-baked money spinners. Hopefully, only responsible bidders would respond.

The policy carries forward the spirit of cooperative federalism. The Central government will fund 80 per cent (90 per cent in the Northeast) of the subsidy amount to be paid to the operators as VGF. The state government shall fund the residual marginal amount.

udan-6

Udan targets medium term dividends

It is a policy reform which does not just eye the popular vote. It courageously demolishes the economic posturing of the past and the earlier demonisation of air transport. It looks, instead, towards medium-term economic growth and job creation. Habitual leftists, dyed-in-the-wool faux socialists and related do-gooders are likely to label this policy a sellout in the name of the poor. But young entrepreneurs yearning for growth opportunities and young workers looking for good jobs should support it. Even those who are ideologically bound to oppose this policy are sure to use these services as they travel “cattle class” to the hinterland.

Adaapted from the authors article in the Asian Age, October 28, 2016  http://www.asianage.com/columnists/will-udan-be-able-make-bharat-soar-536

 

Book Review

 

parag-khanna

Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution, Parag Khanna, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2016

In the 1980s, Disney World, Florida offered a gripping, virtual journey as viewed by a blood corpuscle as it rushes through the arteries, veins, into and out of organs in the human body. Parag Khanna’s fourth and latest book –Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution – does much the same for the world of physical and digital infrastructure -roads, railway tracks, power lines, communication cables, oceans, rivers, canals and electrons joining suppliers to customers, uniting families physically and virtually, whilst creating ever widening value enhancing networks around mega cities.

In this world, national borders are little more than irritants; national sovereignty a barrier to be overcome; national passports a poor substitute for global identity options and the ownership of land valueless, unless it is part of global supply chains.

Global citizen

parag-khanna-2

Parag is a self-confessed global citizen. He was born in India, grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in the US, works in Singapore but feels at home anywhere – chatting with Chinese workers in Tibet, Turkish Gastarbeiters in Germany or breakfasting with the President of Mongolia in Ulan Bator. There are around 300 million others like him. This book describes the way the world could be from the view point of global citizens. A world without borders or intrusive governments; self-regulating businesses kept customer friendly by competition; open markets allowing capital and goods to move freely, perpetually in search of optimizing costs and maximizing value.

Open economy

The virtues of the “open economy, networked” universe are generally accepted today, even if most peoples’ view on markets is similar to their opinion of democracy – not the best option but better than anything else available.

Parag hammers away at re-establishing these generic concepts with relentlessly energy via a high octane delivery, interspersed with a wealth of granular information to buttress his argument. It helps that the book is extensively researched. Its bibliography lists nearly 500 references and almost each page has a quotable quote. An added attraction is the 38 color plates which illustrate what connectography could look like. Maps or traditional cartography which represent geographical or political features, actually tell us very little about the world. These are of little use beyond being partial navigational aids. Consider that Singapore is a mere dot on the world map with just 0.1 percent of the world’s population. But if countries were mapped to scale on the size of their GDP, it would be twice the size of Bangladesh. Does Singapore’s land size or population determine its function in the world today or its economic heft?

Connectivity is key

The book is divided into five parts. Part one dwells on the truism that connectivity and not territory or resource endowments, are the arbiter of how nations grow. In a riposte to the reasons listed by Paul Collier of why nations fail, Parag argues, that countries can overcome the disadvantage of poor geophysical endowments. There is hope even for land locked nations, like Rwanda. Despite being resource poor, it is one of the fastest growing economies, in Africa, because it actively searches out opportunities for becoming part of global supply chains.

The withering Nation State

Part two posits controversially, that the nation state is an artificial construct whose longevity is explained by inertia rather than any irreplaceable value addition ascribable to it. This is especially true in nation states which spend much time and effort to reconcile mutually antagonistic and parochial domestic stakeholder identities. Far better then, to devolve power away to homogenous, smaller sub entities – tribes, communities, companies and cities which, in any case, are the basic framework for solidarity and common interest.

The recent splintered vote in Britain, with London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in the European Union whilst the rest of the country voted to exit, seems to illustrate the inherent fragility of nation states in the face of sharp internal divisions based on self-interest. The nation state is similarly powerless against the loss of sovereignty to larger regional aggregations- earlier the United Nations, cold war alignments and now regional trading blocks. Better connectedness and communications fosters this trend towards aggregation, driven by Metcalfe’s law that the value of a network increases proportionately to the square of the number of interconnected users. Scale is everything.

Sub- national entities are stable

Part three asserts that a future world of connected sub-national entities aggregated into large regional entities, is a more stable and competitive arrangement than the present geopolitical architecture. Sovereign nations seem besieged by split mandates and dissidence at home whilst simultaneously assaulted by external threats. Competitive connectivity trumps national sovereignty. There is no incentive for destabilizing any actor because all are connected for mutual gain. In comparison, Orwellian instability is built into the DNA of competing nation states.

Snap shot of a connected future

Part four fleshes out the future as a landscape of connected megacities. Multinational businesses will be replicas of the Dutch 19th century colonial empire – a web of small enclaves – business hubs for a global supply chain. The nodes of growth would be the four thousand Special Export or Economic Zones, which dot the world today and are also the foundation of China’s extraordinary economic growth.

….and everything else

Part five is mixed fare – an overview of current issues in the digital economy; the genetic transformation resulting from human cross breeding inherent in the physical movement of more people across the globe than ever before- provocatively titled “a mongrel civilization”- and how to best deal with the competing needs of conserving nature and welfare enhancing growth.

For resilient readers only

This is not a book for the faint hearted. The style varies from the explanatory; the exhortatory to being chattily conversational. Some parts are too dense for a lazy afternoon’s read. Others, particularly where the author links his own experiences to more generic issues are lucid and revealing. Editing is unfortunately, lackluster. Rwanda is not a country which is natural resource rich as claimed on page 94; the lead paragraph on page 337 under the attractive title “The digital identity buffet” is an incomprehensible, single sentence of seventy-one words! Deng Xiaoping’s reforms kicked in during the 1980’s in China, not the 1970s as page 380 claims.

Read this book if you are interested in knowing more about the intersections between globalization, geopolitics, business, technology, urbanization and culture. If you are looking for deep knowledge in any one of these areas, you are likely to be disappointed. If you are looking for a new theory of development or growth, it isn’t here. What you do have is masses of information brought together anecdotally in a narrative format.

This is a tour de force of contemporary world trends with attractive, self-explanatory titles to each of the seventy-eight sub chapters. Each of these is self-contained so you don’t have to read the book sequentially. And don’t miss the quotable quotes. My favorite is “a smart rabbit keeps three holes to hide in” to explain why large numbers of Chinese citizens invest in the US or Canada as a safe haven option.

If you are looking for advice on very long term business investments, check out the heat map on plate 31. Be warned, India, China, Africa, Southern Europe, the US and South America may all be deserts by 2100 dried out by the ravages of climate change – unlivable but good for generating solar power. Think instead of investing in Canada, Greenland, Northern Europe, Russia and Western Antarctica, where the climate is expected to be salubrious and the resources plentiful for the depleted population which manages to emigrate there.

This book review by the author first appeared in Swarajyamag, August 2016 http://swarajyamag.com/

 

Prabhu tightens “free lunches” in Indian Railways

indian-maharaja-train

If Suresh Prabhu has his way this is how Indians would travel routinely on vacation. Today these luxury trains are expensive immersive “period” experiences for foreign tourists. Photo credit: http://www.2luxury2.com

The 28 million passengers who use the Indian Railways daily fear March as much as ancient Romans feared the Ides of March. This is when the prospect of the impossibly low rail fares being hiked looms, and then usually abates, as political parties compete to “safeguard the people’s interest”. Indian Railways charges passengers, on average, just 29 paise per kilometre of travel, whereas in China passenger fares are four times higher. The Railways lose around `30,000 crores annually from carrying passengers, but makes up some of that by charging freight rates that are almost double the cost incurred. In China, freight rates are around half of ours. Add to this better roads, bigger trucks and fierce competition, and you can see why road transport has weaned rail freight away. The golden goose of freight revenue funding the Railways is dying.

Tariff not related to the cost of the service

Indian Railways increased passenger fares in June 2014 by six per cent soon after the Narendra Modi government took charge. The Opposition outcry was fast and furious. Around 20 million vocal suburban commuters, a critical vote bank, use trains as a lifeline in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. The Delhi Metro (run separately by the Urban Development ministry) hasn’t revised tariffs since 2009. This ranges from Rs 10 to Rs 30 (around a Nickle to 50 pence US) for secure, fast, air conditioned travel with sparkling terminals. And yet commuters who cavil at the cost think nothing of getting into a shared auto rickshaw and paying `20 for a 2-km slow, pollution infused ride home.

Suresh Prabhu, who took over as railway minister in November 2014, is a battle-hardened, savvy veteran at reforming utilities from his days as power minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee NDA government. Learning from his predecessor, his first Railway Budget in 2015 skirted around the vexed issue of hiking tariffs. His second budget, in 2016, was no different, except that he had developed a track record for delivering on passenger amenities — on cleaner coaches and stations, digital food orders; better on-time arrivals and departures; easier freight booking/handling; and a minister-on-tap app, that has almost become the leitmotif of the Modi government.

Only upward flex in IR’s new tariff 

Even last Saturday, addressing the Indian Merchants Council in Mumbai, Mr. Prabhu gave no hint of the thunderbolt he would unleash on September 7, with the new “flexi-fare scheme” for Rajdhani, Duronto and Shatabadi trains. To call this a “surge pricing” scheme, as most of the media has done, contrasting it with state governments banning flexi fares for radio taxis, is a little misleading. “Surge pricing” transmits both benefits when demand is low and higher costs during peak demand. There is very little “flexi” in the Railways’ scheme. Fares, even if trains are empty, will never fall below existing rates. The railway flexi fares only incentivise travelers to book well in advance, as the base fare increases by 10 per cent after every block of 10 per cent of available seats gets booked. There is a cap of 40 per cent hike for AC-3 possibly because this category, even at existing rates, is the most profitable for the Railways.

But valuable unwritten message: the value of time saved, via fast travel, does not come free

For all other passengers there is a 50 per cent cap on hiked fares, including for those travelling in non-air conditioned sleeper class (2S or SL) on fast premium trains. It is this last category that is interesting. These are truly the aam aadmi (common man) or students, who take a bus or shared auto home on reaching their destination rather than a taxi. By making even them pay what it costs for secure, fast, inter-city travel, Mr Prabhu has set the right tone for the inevitable future increases. After all, if the value of one’s time is low, shouldn’t one be taking a slow train instead at cheaper rates?

So why is Mr Prabhu trying to do a Ronald Reagan rather than playing with a straight bat? Why so much secrecy in tariff hikes, with no explanation of how the new rates relate to the cost of providing the services. Mr Prabhu is a master communicator, but the Railways appear to be still mired in a colonial mode.

colonnial-raiway

The Bibek Debroy Report 2014 is the only the latest in a long line of reports which has urged IR to restructure and modernise. But the Railway Board remains in comfortable colonial mode.

Independent Railway Regulator: Pending since 1989

Independent electricity regulators set up when Mr Prabhu ran the power ministry set tariffs transparently. The costs of offering different services and corresponding tariffs proposed by utilities — mostly publicly owned, like the Railways — can be downloaded from the Internet or a copy obtained from the commission. Then consumers can individually or collectively file comments and/or objections to the proposed tariffs. The process is transparent, access to information is assured and participation is facilitated. This is because Parliament legislated such provisions in specific laws relating to telecom and electricity.

The Railway Act 1989 also provides for a Railway Rates Tribunal to set tariffs in a quasi-judicial manner. This has never been operationalised by previous governments. Mr Prabhu said in his 2015 Budget speech that an “independent mechanism” for comprehensive regulation of the railway sector is needed. This is significant as it acknowledges that a precondition for bringing private capital and enhancing competition is the hiving off of regulatory powers from Indian Railways. The exhaustive Bibek Debroy Committee Report of June 2015 on restructuring the Railways similarly strongly backed such a regulatory system. But the elusive search for the best appears to have come at the expense of the good.

Charged political environment encourages “reform by stealth”

Even in the absence of a regulator, the government could have engaged directly with the public before a tariff increase. But the surcharged political atmosphere, with two major state elections around the corner and the prospect of delay, may have dissuaded it from opening a window for political protests. But someone needed to bell the cat.

In this country’s political shadow play, a proposed rate hike inevitably incorporates a rollback margin. So hope for a rollback in the cap from a 50 per cent increase to a cap of possibly 25 per cent. But be prepared for an era where the railway station is no longer the place to look for a free lunch.

new-station

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age August 9, 2016 http://onlineepaper.asianage.com/articledetailpage.aspx?id=6283706

 

Rebranding Indian Rail

IR1

Indian Railways: Lifeline of the Nation” — runs the bold title of a 2015 government white paper. But the reality is that post-1991 the Indian Railways (IR), whilst retaining its high ritual status, ceded ground to competition from road transport.

Too many consultant chefs

It has only itself to blame. The railways steadfastly stonewalled all attempts to reform its operations. Over the past 15 years, railway operations have been studied by no less than six high-level committees, under Rakesh Mohan (2001), Sam Pitroda (2012), Montek Singh Ahluwalia (2014), Rakesh Mohan (National Transport Development Committee, 2014), D.K. Mittal (2014) and Bibek Debroy (2015). There was no committee chair from the railways.

There are seven executive members of the Railway Board, its highest body, that functions directly under the railway minister. There are 9,124 senior Group A railway officers who are specialists in finance, commercial services, maintenance, operations, construction and production of rolling stock. It’s odd, therefore, that the government has never trusted these professionals to come up with a vision of what “the lifeline of the nation” should look like. In fact, this illustrates that reform was never an internally driven priority.

No internal support for reform in IR

Admittedly, with a large workforce of 1.3 million, unionisation in the railways is strong. George Fernandes, former railway minister (1989-1990) and Janata Party luminary, sowed his wild oats as a firebrand, railway union leader. But this is exactly why the Narasimha Rao brand of “reform by stealth” cannot work for the Indian Railways. The bottomline is that in such huge industrial enterprises there is no alternative to a broad consensus around reform and approaching it head-on.

Road wins versus rail

Truck

The railways languished in the post-reform era as it was unable to build private partnerships and leverage its assets. The government too seemed to have given up on it and turned its attention to building highways instead. So as rail passenger transportation doubled, road passenger transportation has trebled since 1990-91. The railways’ share of freight decreased from 53 per cent in 1986-87 to less than 30 per cent today.

The Indian Railways lost ground as it got mired in its own corrosive image of a government entity focused on social objectives — providing cheap, even free, travel. Thus, it lost sight of its mission to become the “economic lifeline” of the nation. Communist China moves less passengers kilometre per kilometre of its rail network than India. But it moves four times more freight kilometer per kilometre of its network than India. The India Railways’ priorities are time-warped around passenger traffic.

The seamless movement of freight over long distances can cut the cost of production and make industry competitive. Long-distance freight is best moved by rail. But the Indian Railways lost the freight business due to a monopolistic tariff policy for bulk freight, such as for coal, iron ore, cement and foodgrains. It is similar for the power sector. Bulk consumers like industry are still charged at penal rates to cross-subsidise rural and retail consumers.

Fuzzy mission

Railway minister Suresh Prabhu, like several of his predecessors, is articulate, public-spirited and full of ambitious programmes spelt out in his Railway Budget speech this year. On offer is more public investment to remove the choke points which congest and slow down traffic; a more extensive search for alternative revenues from station redevelopment and the monetisation of assets; better passenger facilities and continued implementation of the dedicated freight corridors.

SPrabhu

But clarity on the Indian Railways’ core mission is missing. This has to be, first and foremost, the movement of freight and increasing the railways’ market share in the city and suburban passenger traffic.

Three reform measures are preconditions for success.

City and suburban travel

metro

First, it is SMART to switch city and suburban passenger traffic to rail from road. The savings on travel time and the avoided cost of air pollution justify such investments. But this is an option only if we can make these systems attractive for private investment and management. Assured viability gap funding on the back of regular adjustment of tariff is a must. The experience of “independent” regulators in electricity shows that in large metros, with high income levels, cost-reflective tariffs can work, if customers can transparently see for themselves the value proposition the service offers.

Use scarce capital to move freight

IRFreight

Second, allocation of public capital across competing projects has to be “value for money”. The railways’ passenger and freight businesses should be insulated silos for accounting purposes so that costs and revenues can be allocated to each service. Our rail freight tariff is on average 40 per cent more than China’s. But our passenger tariff is on average 75 per cent cheaper. Investing to make freight move four times faster at 100 km per hour instead of 25 km per hour makes sense as there is room to reduce tariffs and expand business. Investing to move passengers at 130 kmph, instead of 70 kmph, makes no sense because although passengers are willing to pay for it the Indian Railways is not willing to charge for it.

Go for partnerships

Third, the Indian Railways must think of itself as part of a supply chain rather than a stand-alone competitor. It must seek partnerships with air, road and marine transporters, and with traffic aggregators that can yield better returns. This is possible through transparent contracts, even as the railways remains a government entity.

In 1990-91, India had few choices except to reform by stealth. We have moved on since then. The reform constituency has grown. The real concern now is how to insulate losers from the pain of change and development. Loss of employment or of land must be fairly and adequately compensated. Using scarce fiscal resources for this purpose aligns with equity and is more efficient to bump up aggregate demand than across-the-board public sector pay increases.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age, July 27, 2016  http://www.asianage.com/columnists/3-reforms-put-railways-fast-track-019

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: