Expect travelling in a Tata or a Reliance super fast train from Delhi to Mumbai in a few years time once the government decides to implement the Bibek Debroy committee’s report on railways restructuring. With the committee submitting its final report to the ministry of railways, the ball is now in Debroy’s good friend railway minister Suresh Prabhu’s court to set the ball rolling for transforming the railways into a self-sufficient entity going ahead.
One of the key suggestion of the Debroy panel is to allow private companies to run trains. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they will also manage the tracks – the track management will be taken care of by a separate company working under the railways’ ministry’s fold. But the railways will have to handle private trains competing among themselves, and also with its own trains, to attract passengers. This will be a tricky job and would require deft handling by an independent regulator. The railways would require extensive modernization and improvement in track infrastructure first for doing this.
Another move suggested by the committee that would mean no railway budget is to segregate the railways’ social responsibility (subsidizing passenger fares) from its operational finances. This would, in effect, result in the central government showing the subsidies on railway fares in the general budget – and the state governments will have to bear their part for sub-urban trains.
Those getting the benefit of lower railway fares will be tracked in the similar way as in the case of LPG subsidy. Aadhaar-based ticketing for the passenger segment enjoying subsidized fares is being looked at for this purpose.
Obviously, this is not going to happen from tomorrow, but this is the course that has been set to be achieved in the next five years with an independent regulator ensuring fairness and transparency. What remains to be seen is how amenable the NDA government is to implement these changes.
Railways unions are no pushovers and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to convince them that the changes will ultimately benefit everybody. A similar plan for restructuring the Food Corporation of India (FCI) recommended by the Shanta Kumar committee has been thrown into the cold storage. Considering Debroy’s proximity to prime minister Narendra Modi, though, his railways turnaround plan has a good chance of getting implemented.