Prabhu's remarks against the backdrop of raging debate on the privatisation of railways with the government-appointed committee headed by economist Bibek Debroy.
Notwithstanding recommendation by government panels, Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu has outrightly ruled out privatisation of the public transporter, saying it was a “bogey” being raised by those who do not want any change.
He further said the concept of privatisation gives confusing signals and envisages the possibilities of ownership transfer of an enterprise to a different entity or management which was not possible in railways.
“Railways will continue to be owned by government of India, managed by government of India.
“We want change not for the change in ownership. We do not want change for somebody to run the precious assets of railways. We want to bring in private capital or technology to improve the functioning of railways so that railways become more valuable,” Prabhu told PTI in an interview.
Prabhu’s remarks come in the backdrop of raging debate on the privatisation of railways with the government-appointed committee headed by economist Bibek Debroy recommending corporatization of the loss-making public transporter and suggesting that the ministry of railways be only responsible for policymaking and private players should be allowed to run passengers and freight operations.
According to the latest CAG report on Railways, the Indian Railways was unable to meet its operational cost of passenger and other coach services and there was a loss of Rs 23,643 crore in the same during 2011-12.
Asked about the reasons for opposing privatisation, he said, “Unfortunately this type of nomenclature is an ideological debate. This is unnecessary and unintended confrontation. What is meant by us is that we want to improve quality of service of railways.”
“So whatever brings better quality of service, better technology, better profitability has to be done with whatever means possible. If we can do it ourselves in-house then we should do it. If we realise that we cannot do it in-house then we must get it outside capital, outside technology and outside agency” but not with the transfer of ownership.
Privatisation, he said, “is a bogey being raised by those who do not want change” even if it is for improving performance and facilities.
Citing the example of Japan launching a 650 km per hour speed train, Prabhu said, “Where are we? If we do not have the technology should we remain behind? We should not look outside like ostrich. This is not possible. Therefore, we must look as to who can provide technology will be a partner.
“We do not have money so the one who can provide money, can be our partner. Therefore, getting private sector participation in railways for better technology or for money does not amount to privatisation.”
Asked about the key challenges railways was facing, Prabhu said “challenges are many. Mindset itself is a challenge. The biggest challenge is the mindset. One is our internal mindset and the second is the people who use railway services.”
Asserting that railways was a joint responsibility, he said it has to be managed both by government and public.
“If you keep thinking I will keep spitting, I will keep spoiling, it is my right since I have bought ticket then it cannot happen. Mindset of people must change. It is a joint endeavour. You cannot be in a demanding position that I must get better service all the time without doing nothing.
“So the mindset must change. So we want to bring ownership issue that everybody owns railways. There are lot of mid-level management people,” the minister said.
He said first challenge was to change the mindset and the other was to convince people that we can achieve something.
“We have targeted higher freight traffic (1.5 billion MT) and this is for the first time in the history of railways that this much target has been set”, he said.
Asked if it is not a case of misplaced priority that railways, which has even failed to run a train at 160 km per hour so far, is now planning for a bullet train, Prabhu said the railways has to cater to every segment but not at one another’s expense.
“In a country like India you have a big number of customers. There are customers who travel in ordinary class, there are others who travel in AC first class. There are customers for high-end trains like Maharaja Express.”
“Then there are people who want bullet trains…. There are people who have the ability to pay more and some have inability to pay but still they also want to travel. So, railways cannot afford to go for only one segment.”
He said, “We want to cater to high-end customers but not to ignore others. We want to earn money from them (high-end) and not lose them.
“If we lose them to airlines then after sometime, we will lose very precious customers. So, we want to start bullet trains but not at the expense of average customers.”
Asked in a lighter vein as to which ministry he would have preferred, Prabhu said, “There is no choice. It is the Prime Minister’s prerogative. This is my 8th cabinet responsibility…Somebody told me railways will be a headache job. I said everything is a headache job. Even if you take up a job in the bank that will also be a headache.”
He added, “Life is meant to serve. If you can improve the life of people in the journey then this is the biggest service.”