India's Railways Claim Another Reformer's Job: Choudhury

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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India's ruling coalition government, the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, advanced its fast-growing reputation for perverse populism and policy paralysis last week when it ratified the dismissal of its own railway minister, Dinesh Trivedi, shortly after he presented a fiscally prudent and forward-looking budget for India's railroad system.

Trivedi's offense was to propose a modest increase in passenger fares (currently subsidized by the government and cross-subsidized by freight fares) for the first time in nine years -- a necessary step to ensure the health of a network that ferries about 30 million passengers daily over routes totaling about 65,000 kilometers (39,000 miles). For this crime he was promptly yanked out of his job by his party boss, the firebrand Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress, who attacked the decision as "anti-poor" and sought to replace Trivedi with the presumably more obedient Mukul Roy.

Not only did the government agree to Trivedi's ouster, citing "the compulsions of coalition politics," it refused to commit itself to the provisions of his budget, which were surely not a surprise as they were presented in Parliament by Trivedi. It is probable that some of the proposed fare increases will be "rolled back" -- a fair image for the direction taken by the present government itself.

The entire episode reeked of intellectual bankruptcy, petulance and pusillanimity. When queried about the wisdom of her move, Banerjee proffered a rationalization that reveals much about the character of Indian democracy: that the very parties that work the democratic system have no commitment to democracy internally, and that almost every one has some grand paterfamilias, or mater, who runs the show, coasting serenely on a sea of sycophancy.

“It is my right to decide who will be the railway minister, Why Sonia [Gandhi, the chairperson of the UPA and the most powerful figure in Indian politics] decides who should be the prime minister of the country?” Banerjee asked. Meanwhile, Roy was sworn in as the new railway minister, becoming the third occupant of the post in this government in less than a year. The first was Banerjee herself, who then ceded the post to Trivedi when her party won a historic election in West Bengal last May to end 34 years of Communist rule in that state.

In a stinging piece in the Indian Express called "The Trivedi Tutorial," the newspaper's editor Shekhar Gupta called Trivedi "the first martyr" of the process of economic reforms that began in India in 1991, when the ruling Congress Party took a number of steps to liberalize the economy under the direction of the present prime minister, Manmohan Singh. Gupta correctly pointed out:

There is no alibi in compulsions of coalition politics. The rail budget was a collective, cabinet decision. And having “bitten the bullet”, the cabinet should have collectively risen to defend a minister who only followed its agenda. So, why did they not do it in 2012, when the very same people had put their heads on the line in 1991? Why does the UPA think its risks are higher today? Or that it has more to lose, than even in 1991 when it was a minority government? Has the reformers’ will weakened? Has the economic success of these two heady decades made us lazy, and smug?

What Dinesh Trivedi’s fate tells you is not about the Indian Railways, about how such a crucial — and once marvellous — element in our national infrastructure has been destroyed under serial populists. [...] It is about how his leaders in this government, or those leading this coalition, failed to even utter a word in his defence. It really is as if they tried this bit of reform by stealth, hiding behind poor Trivedi, and dumped him the moment they were caught out. Where would India be today, if Narasimha Rao, so reviled and disparaged by his own partymen in his post-power years, had dumped Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram when market-linked controversies erupted in their tenure?

And on the website of the news channel CNN-IBN, the longtime railways correspondent Vivian Fernandes wrote that Trivedi had surprised everyone with the audacity of his budget and his insistence that the railway system had to "bite the bullet" if it was to expand and modernize. He also supplied a summary of the shenanigans of various railway ministers before Trivedi, including Banerjee:

I expected Trivedi to play safe with the railway budget. I have reported and commented on the railways for more than a decade and have watched its decline. Successive ministers have used it to pad their political profile and more. [...] Under Mamata Banerjee's watch, the railways saw the worst operating ratio of 98 per cent: only two rupees were left in every hundred earned after operating expenses and appropriations for pensions and asset wear and tear.

Long distance second-class fares have been almost flat for 20 years. The wholesale price index during this time has risen three times over. [...] [Trivedi's] was the best railway budget speech I had heard. His prescriptions were just what the railways needed. He stood his ground and paid the price. His conduct right through was decorous. Such a contrast to the pack wolf-like behaviour of his party men: dummies echoing their master's voice. [...]

In an earlier post on this website I had advised Trivedi to be a survivor because his presence in the railway ministry was necessary to steer the reforms through. But his departure will not be in vain. He has shown his detractors for the scaffolding they are.

In the Sunday Guardian, Prayaag Akbar took a contrary view, suggesting that it was erroneous to criticize the railways for continuing to subsidize passengers -- or indeed Banerjee for opposing a hike in fares -- when subsidies were everywhere in the economy, including in the education of the middle class and the rich:

Why should Banerjee not keep in mind the very valid interests of the people who have elected her? Trivedi might have been trying to make the correct decision, but there is no long political life to be led by listening to bureaucrats over those who have voted you into power. What we've seen over the last few days is an unabashed display of that most pernicious presumption of our paternalist English media, that poor ("uneducated") people do not know what is good for themselves and the nation. [...]

It is quite clear that rail travel is subsidised in India. But where does this self-righteous opprobrium disappear when you consider that you can get a top-class college education, one that guarantees you a lifetime of comfort, for Rs 300 a month [about $6]? How many of India's poorest send their children to St Stephens and Presidency? [India's best-known undergraduate colleges] And just how many commentators lauding Trivedi's political courage have benefitted from India's elite-ordained collegiate subsidy? The widespread belief that the government is forever handing out sops to the poor is one of the tremendous misconceptions of contemporary India. The system is weighted to help those at the very top stay there.

Perhaps the point to make here, though, is that Trivedi's budget was by general consensus only mildly reformist. Yet it gave every indication of the minister having taken, unlike his more cynical predecessors, a genuine and detailed interest in the present and the future of the Indian Railways, and his prepared speech is a document of considerable elegance and insight -- one that should have ensured for him a long and distinguished tenure and not an unceremonious dismissal. Very simply, the speech is a positive illustration of the art of politics: of providing a survey of a complex field, of outlining various choices made and the reasons for making them, of not always taking the path of least resistance, and of trying to balance the short-term view with the long-term one. As Trivedi argued:

My budget has been prepared with the full realisation that Indian Railways stand at a crossroads and the present moment offers an opportunity to signal a new dawn for the organization. While the world is grappling with the problem of dealing with a flat economy, India has remained in a healthy growth mode all through the economic downturn. The world is looking towards India and the huge potential it possesses to act as the Engine of Growth. On a somewhat smaller scale, what India is to the world, Indian Railways are to the Indian economy. Therefore, if I may be permitted some immodesty, Indian Railways has a very critical role in catalysing growth for the world economy. I am conscious that India cannot sustain its present GDP growth unless its lead basic infrastructure, Indian Railways, modernizes and grows at least 10% annually. [...]

The input costs of railways have been going up. The impact of the 6th Pay Commission on the staff costs is well known to the Hon’ble Members. Fuel prices have increased by more than 50% during the last decade. The movement of Wholesale Price Index and Consumer Price Index has followed similar pattern. During this period, the cost of passenger transportation by road has increased manifold. [...] The proposed adjustments do not even cover fully the impact of increase in fuel prices during the last eight years.

The best ever Operating Ratio of Indian Railways was 74.7% in the year 1963-64. In consultation with the Railway Board, I am targeting to improve the Operating Ratio from 95% to less than 80% by the end of 12th Plan. This landmark improvement in railway finances would enable building up of a strong base to meet the challenges ahead and bring back the confidence of people in Railways, thereby dispelling all apprehensions that Indian Railways is going downhill. I expect to achieve an Operating Ratio of 84.9% in 2012-13 as compared to 95% in the current year. If this trend continues, I have no doubt that my Operating Ratio will improve upon even the best ever of 74.7% within the 12th Plan.

Among the other things we learned from the railway budget was that the corrosion of tracks from the human waste deposited on them from train toilets costs the Railways 350 crore ($70 million) every year, an amount that would be saved with a new model of "green toilets." Also, the Railways had just completed the building of an "11 km long tunnel through Pir Panjal Mountain Range, which would provide connectivity to the Kashmir valley," hitherto unlinked by the Indian rail system.

There is plenty of reason to believe, as Trivedi claimed in the last paragraph of the speech, that in India "rail gadi ke chuk-chuk mein hi/ aam aadmi ki dhak-dhak hai" ("In the sound of the train/ can be heard the heartbeat of the common man"). It is a pity, though, that this enormously diverse, complex and accessible system -- one in which Indians of all stripes and classes can be found travelling together, on journeys stretching from a few minutes to almost three days -- is being inhibited by a coterie of short-sighted and spineless elected representatives from scaling up to meet the demands and infrastructure requirements of a time in which ever more human beings are on the move.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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