Can’t delink present from past: Bibek Debroy

Chairing a committee on structural reforms led Bibek Debroy to investigate the history of Indian Railways


Bibek Debroy. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Bibek Debroy. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The railway signal lantern outside the first-floor office of economist Bibek Debroy at Niti Aayog, which has replaced the Planning Commission, captures his nostalgia for the national carrier, articulated in his new book—Indian Railways: The Weaving Of A National Tapestry.

Interestingly, it was a committee headed by Debroy (in 2014-15) that recommended phasing out the colonial legacy of a separate railway budget, recommended by British politician William Ackworth in 1924. Ahead of the release of his book, co-authored by Sanjay Chadha and Vidya Krishnamurthi, Debroy talks about 19th century issues still holding relevance today, his fascination with British engineer Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton, and the benefits of inland waterways vis-à-vis the railways. Edited excerpts:

What was the thought process behind this book?

When you publish a book, people think there is a very coherent process behind it. But a lot of books get written on almost spur-of-the-moment decisions and then (are about) finding a publisher. I was the chairman of a committee that was set up to recommend structural reforms of Indian Railways. In the process, I got interested in the railways and their history.

If you talk to people in India, the one section of the economy that everyone identifies with is the railways, in one manner or another. So when I was looking up the history of the railways, I found broadly two types of books. There were purely academic books, mostly about the guarantee system and its problems, focusing primarily on the economics. The railways officially celebrated 150 years not very long ago. So whenever these celebrations were held, they brought out coffee-table books. So you had the coffee-table books and the academic ones and then nothing in between.

For an exclusive excerpt from the book, click here.

Debroy also created a railway trivia challenge for Lounge. See the quiz here

I decided to do a popular retelling of the history of Indian Railways using anecdotes. In the process, we were able to discover a few things which are not in any history book.

Indian Railways— The Weaving Of A National Tapestry: By Bibek Debroy, Penguin Books, 264 pages, Rs299.
Indian Railways— The Weaving Of A National Tapestry: By Bibek Debroy, Penguin Books, 264 pages, Rs299.

So the committee was the trigger?

The trigger was getting interested in the railways. You can’t delink the present from the past. Some of the issues discussed at the time of the railways being introduced into India still hold relevance today.

There are a few points that I want to make in response to your question. Firstly, this debate about whether the railways are going to be driven by commercial considerations or do they have social costs. It figures in all the debates, in the minutes (of meetings) and the writings of the 19th century. In that sense, what we are talking about today is not new at all.

Secondly, who is going to build the railways? You find that debate also recurring throughout the 19th century. It began with the private (investments), it ended with the public/government (investments). In 1905, the railway board was established, and there is an extensive note on the history of the railways in a book written in the same year. If you read that, you will find that everything that any railway minister is talking about today is there.

There is a preponderance of emphasis on passenger traffic at the expense of freight. And passenger traffic generally is not remunerative. So as long as you have this very rare composition among the larger railways in the world, you are absolutely right. All these issues are old issues, including the issue of the regulator.

Everyone talks about the Ackworth committee now because one of the recommendations of the committee, and mind you, only one, was the separate railway budget. What several people forget, including people from the railways, is the way the Ackworth committee started. It was because the lease of the East Indian Railway Company was going to end.

Among Dwarkanath Tagore, Arthur Thomas Cotton and Macdonald Stephenson, who is your favourite character in the book?

I think the answer will be only one and that is Arthur Cotton, because I did not know about the Red Hill Railroad (in Chennai). Because like everyone else, I had been brought up on 1853 being the (year of the) first one (railway). Ever since my undergraduate days, I had been given this Karl Marx quote (the railway system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry), but until I wrote this book, the two pieces (the first railway and the quote) had never fit together. That’s why Marx wrote that in 1853. Once you think about it, obviously because of Bombay-Thane (rail route).

You have written about the debate of railways versus waterways in the book. What led you to focus on it?

This is an old debate in Indian economic history. So you can’t avoid it. The Indian nationalist school felt that to the extent that there was a trade-off between irrigation and railways, irrigation was a better option because it would also help agriculture and rural poverty. And there was a valid perception that the railways were built not with Indian economic interests in mind but with a view to exporting Indian products and importing products from England.

Were the railways a vehicle for the British to further their interests or did they help India in any way?

One way to answer that question is to presume that there was a grand plan and everything fitted according to that grand plan. But a lot that happened was ad hoc. Little pieces of the jigsaw coming together here and there….

The fact of the matter is, and we have listed this out, that by the turn of the 20th century, there were at least 10 railway systems in parallel existence.

The princely states, while they constructed those railways, were in no position to operate them. And the operations were always given to the likes of the EIRC (East Indian Railway Company) and GIPR (Great Indian Peninsula Railway). Even when the government nationalized them, they were often handed over to these organizations for management purposes.

There must be anecdotes that you wanted to include in the book but couldn’t, such as the one about Partition, when few railway stations came to India and the towns went to Pakistan.

Yes, look, the book really ends with 1947. There are some things that continued till 1948-49 and that’s because we discovered this loan agreement with the World Bank, which has not figured in any of the books that I know of, signed by (diplomat) Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. We wanted to put that in. So, yes, there ought to be a book which is post 1947. For example, I am prepared to bet that not too many people know that around the time of the 1971 war, Pakistan captured one of our locomotives. So, the last I know, it used to run on the Pakistan railways, and used to be called “Indira”. In retaliation, we captured one of the locomotives from the East Pakistan side which we have donated to Bangladesh. Don’t ask me about this because I haven’t written that book yet (laughs).

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