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Railways and a question of transparency

A surprising feature of the post-Budget discourse in Parliament and in the media these past few weeks has been the total absence of one topic: Railways. Apparently, the understated objective of doing away with a separate Budget for the Railways, namely, shifting the spotlight away from it, has been handsomely achieved. However, sweeping under the carpet the serious problems of viability facing the country’s largest and most crucial transport organisation, by taking cover behind the diversions provided by other, more topical issues thrown up by the Union Budget, will not make them disappear.

Finances are out of whack

Recent public statements about the performance of the Railways on the freight front seem to suggest that all is well with the Railways. In a recent interview, the CEO and Chairman of the Railway Board highlighted the fact that freight loading in January 2021 was the highest ever. A recent press report says that the freight earnings in 2020-21 are likely to be more than in 2019-20 despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Union Budget 2021 | ‘Record’ allocation of ₹1.10 lakh crore for Railways

Both these achievements are commendable by themselves but need to be seen in proper perspective. About the record-breaking loading in January 2021, what is relevant is the freight earnings, which during the entire year are projected to be ₹1,24,184.00 crore in the Revised Estimates for 2020-21. This is, in fact, lower than what was achieved in 2018-19 (₹1,27,432.72 crore). As for the freight revenues going past that of the last financial year, that was only to be expected, with freight traffic having a relatively free run due to cancellation of most regular passenger services due to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, an important financial performance index has been airbrushed to project a picture totally removed from reality. The Operating Ratio (OR), which is broadly the ratio of working expenses to revenues, has been artificially kept below 100% by making less-than-required provision for pension payments during 2019-20 and 2020-21. While the official figures of OR are 98.36% for 2019-20 and 96.96% for 2020-21, the actual OR works out to 114.19% and 131.49%, respectively, if the required provision is made for pension payments. The purpose of indulging in this self- delusional exercise is not clear. Technically, the Indian Railways are well and truly in the red. Tinkering with statistics cannot alter that reality.

Perhaps for the first time ever, the Indian Railways were unable to adequately provide for the Pension Fund, both for 2019-20 and 2020-21, totalling ₹78,119 crore. The Railway Ministry has reportedly sought a loan from the Central Exchequer to meet this shortfall. While the under-provisioning for 2020-21 can be explained by the shortfall in revenues due to the pandemic, the shortfall amounting to ₹27,642 crore even during 2019-20 (when there was no COVID-19) should be a cause for serious concern. In fact, the passenger and freight earnings in 2019-20 were less than in 2018-19, indicating that a downslide had started even before the outbreak of COVID-19, probably due to the economic slowdown. Railway finances are out of whack. And COVID-19 has nothing to do with it.

Data | Indian Railways spent ₹101.77 for every ₹100 earned in FY19, says CAG

Immediate challenges

It is not as though all this has happened suddenly. The fact is, over the years, traffic revenues have been unable to keep pace with the increase in staff costs and pension payments. While the passenger and freight revenues increased by 84.8 % from 2010-11 to 2019-20, the staff and pension costs raced ahead at almost double that rate, by 157%, in the same period. Further, while in 2010-11, the staff plus pension costs formed 55.7% of the traffic earnings, by 2019-20, they had shot up to 77.5% of the traffic earnings. This, despite the fact that there has been a reduction of about one lakh staff on roll during this period. The spike in the staff and pension costs is largely attributable to the implementation of the Central Pay Commission recommendations, a 10-yearly feature. Being a Ministry of the Government of India, the Indian Railway’s finances are bound to be subjected to another fatal body blow by the next (Eighth) Pay Commission around 2025-26. Therefore, the immediate challenges are achieving a quantum jump in the revenues, particularly on the freight front, and a drastic reduction in the number of employees, there being no way to reduce the number of pensioners in the short run.

It is in this context that the full commissioning of the two Dedicated Freight Corridors (DFCs), slated to be operational by 2022, assumes great urgency and importance. A related aspect is the product mix of freight that will be carried in the near future. A disturbing feature of freight traffic is the overwhelming dependence on one commodity: coal. Despite all the marketing efforts over the years, almost 50% of freight earnings are contributed by the transport of coal. With the availability of alternative sources of renewable energy such as solar at competitive prices, the dependence on coal-based thermal power plants is bound to reduce to meet the incremental energy needs. Even these are likely to be set up at the pitheads, requiring no substantial movement over the Railways system. Also, India is a signatory to the 2015 Paris Agreement, committed to achieving targeted reductions in carbon emissions in a time-bound manner. The Railways have to therefore think seriously of a life after coal. An option that merits consideration is the adoption of the roll-on roll-off model of transporting loaded trucks on rail on the DFCs, which apart from boosting revenues has the added advantage of reducing the overall carbon footprint.

The other major challenge facing the Railways is the burgeoning staff costs including pension. At this juncture, the reported move to go in for recruitment of 1.5 lakh staff is simply baffling. There have been suggestions to corporatise the Railways’s Production Units and outsource the medical services. The government needs to firm up its policies on these crucial issues after discussions with all stakeholders. More than a year ago, a grand proposal to merge all cadres and have a single Indian Railways management cadre was announced to eliminate “departmentalism”. This implies that the existing organisational set up will continue, because it will take at least 25-30 years for any beneficial impact to be felt. On the other hand, moves are afoot to invite private players to operate passenger and freight services. These are conflicting moves, akin to driving a car with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brakes.

Need for public scrutiny

A separate Railway Budget has passed irrevocably into history. However, the need for a detailed public scrutiny of the affairs of one of the largest undertakings in the country, public or private, at least once a year has not gone away. As suggested earlier by this writer in these columns, an annual report called ‘Indian Railways Report’ on the lines of the annual Economic Survey should be placed in Parliament every year detailing the physical and financial performance of the Railways, identifying the challenges and plans for the future to meet the country’s rail transport needs. The Railways are in the midst of an unprecedented financial distress and are faced with fundamental organisational issues. This is no time for evasiveness and obfuscation but for clarity and transparency. It is also time to confront reality.

K. Balakesari is former Member Staff, Railway Board. Email: balakesari_k@hotmail.com

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 7:43:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/railways-and-a-question-of-transparency/article34013948.ece

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