Monday, Feb 17, 2003
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AN EMOTIONAL CAMPAIGN in support of a new railway zonal headquarters has ended with the Prime Minister, A. B. Vajpayee, laying the foundation stone for the South Western Railway zone at Hubli. The BJP was the biggest backer of the demand for carving out the new zone and that it be headquartered at Hubli. Mr. Vajpayee's participation only highlighted the emotional overtones which the issue took over the last four years in northern Karnataka. The impact of the move in deference to regional sentiments on the financial and operational health of the Railways would be severe, as forewarned by expert committees and the Government's own studies. But the Cabinet had chosen to ignore them when in July 2002 it announced that seven more Railway zones would be created. The rationale behind the Railway Reforms Committee's 1984 recommendation that four new Zones (in addition to the existing nine) could be created to improve operational efficiency and monitoring of freight movement can no longer be sustained. Today, communication technology can achieve these ends far better than human intervention. Already, the Indian Railways has started implementing a project to set in place a broadband optic fibre network, one of whose major objectives is to improve the administrative communication system and tracking of train movement. Thus, other than creating an administrative white elephant, and helping the BJP's regional satraps score political points, the new zone will serve no purpose.
It was in the early 1990s that Hubli staked its claim for zonal headquarters status. But the Congress and the Janata Dal Governments did not do much to follow up this claim. The Deve Gowda Government, which announced the formation of new zones including South Western Railway, in 1996 attempted to make Bangalore the zonal headquarters. In 1999, a Janata Dal leader went to court against any attempt by the BJP regime to change the zonal headquarters from Bangalore to Hubli. The BJP fought the battle and has now succeeded in getting the zone to Hubli. But the issue had other emotional dimensions too. For example, the bitter controversy over including the Tornagal-Guntakkal section in the new zone. A two-year campaign centred round the fact that this section earns Rs.700 crores a year by moving iron ore from Bellary to Chennai Port. The zone would have been completely unviable and a non-starter if this revenue earning section had been excluded.
That the creation of zones is meeting mere political exigencies was laid bare in July 2002 after the bitter spat between the Trinamool Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee, and the NDA Government over the move to bifurcate Eastern Railway. The contention was that the new East Central Railway would gobble up nearly half the freight revenues earned from the coal belt of Dhanbad and Danapur. The Indian Railways has hardly benefited from these political bickerings at a time when it can no longer think of new avenues for raising revenue. Even by the Railway Minister's admission, internal generation of resources fell short of the targets by Rs. 888 crores due to shortfall of receipts. The record of the Railways, despite technological advances, in terms of adding significantly to its rolling stock, modernising infrastructure or passenger amenities, in correlation with the demand or national requirements, is hardly impressive. Perhaps, a wholly new model in planning and decision-making is necessary to generate more revenues. But such models can hardly be thought of when only political pressure and necessity goad the Ministry to act, that too to meet parochial demands. It is perhaps time the Railways is freed from direct control of the Ministry to function as a corporate undertaking, or a special PSU, with full administrative autonomy.
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