The financial health of the Indian Railways is undoubtedly in a perilous state and needs urgent treatment. However, that is no reason to run the rail establishment down, as is so often done. It is frequently lamented that we are mostly with what the British left us. In 1950, the rail network length was 54,000 route km and, in 2012, it had increased to 65,000 route km, an increase of just 11,000 route km in 62 years. But this does not do full justice to what has been achieved in the face of considerable odds.

For instance, over the past six decades, around 52,000 km of tracks has been converted into broad gauge and almost a third of the network has been electrified. Over 98% of the passenger traffic is now on broad gauge. Steam locomotives have been phased out almost completely (and there were some 8,000 of them bequeathed to us by the British) and the network now runs on diesel and electric locomotives. Connectivity to remote regions has become a reality and has been welcomed by the people living in these areas. Engineering marvels have been accomplished in different places like along the Konkan coast and in Jammu and Kashmir.

Undoubtedly, our railways needs massive modernization and expansion. Of course, it will require huge resources that have to be generated through both conventional and innovative means like PPP (public-private partnerships which should mean private resources for public projects and not the other way around).

At the same time, in our country, the railways has vital social obligations as well and will continue to have them for some time to come. We can never lose sight of these realities. In 2012-13, these social obligations were valued at around 20,000 crore (excluding staff welfare costs and expenditure on law and order). This is about 18% of the total working expenditure that year. That railways must be managed more efficiently, that new technology needs to be inducted and that large-scale application of information technology, for instance, can help enhance productivity is not in dispute.

But we need to be realistic and establish priorities. Are bullet trains, that seem to be an obsession with the Prime Minister particularly, all that necessary at this time? With an investment of at least 100 crore per km (and some rail experts have pegged it even higher), is it worth it and will it really help in the financial overhaul of the railways? Can we really replicate the Chinese or Japanese experience with our habitation patterns and networks and movement of people and cattle across railway tracks.

At today’s prices, the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train will cost upwards of 50,000 crore. At a time when there is a severe cash crunch with a huge backlog of projects to get completed, the overriding question now must surely be one of timing. Bullet trains may add prestige, may have great symbolic and psychological value that we too have entered a sleek, high-tech era. But with one-way fares reportedly of close 5,000 on this route, how many will be able to afford it, more so when we cannot mandate, as the Chinese seem to have done, that certain classes of passenger traffic will move away from conventional to bullet trains.

Unarguably, given the appalling state of public hygiene and the contributions of the Indian Railways to this state, bio-toilet trains are far more urgent than bullet trains. Bio-toilets, based on anaerobic (absence of oxygen) bio-degradation of human waste, have been developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and are as critical to India’s security and future as tanks, light combat aircraft, radars and missiles. But they don’t attract headlines and don’t generate excitement.

With its daily passenger volume of more than two crore, the depressing but visible reality is that the Indian Railways is the largest open sewer system in the world. India cannot be freed from the scourge of open defecation without a sanitation revolution in our railway system. Bio-toilets, which have already been tried out successfully on a couple of trains, offer the most hygienic solution. They are not only beneficial for the environment and lead to better hygiene but are equally important in helping prevent corrosion on tracks that is a safety hazard.

The recent rail budget did speak of bio-toilet trains, but the road-map is not at all clear. We manufacture about 4,000 rail coaches a year. All new coaches must be manufactured with bio-toilets. But the bigger challenge will be to retrofit these new toilet devices on each of the almost 60,000 coaches in service, with each coach having at least four such bio-toilets. With the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission, is it too much to expect that by 2019, all coaches will be fitted with bio-toilets? Resources to achieve this objective must be made available and must take precedence over expenditure on bullet trains.

That populism has very often triumphed over commercial considerations in our railway operations over the past decades is obvious. Quite apart from the social obligations angle which cannot be wished away, the fact that there is a separate rail budget every year has also been responsible for this populism.

In 1924, the government of India took over the management of the railways and separated railway finances from general government finances, because in those days, the railways were in surplus and our colonial masters wanted the surplus to appear separately. A separate rail budget followed in 1925. It may have made sense then, but it no longer does so, especially since railway expenditure is less than 6% of overall central government expenditure. There is really no compelling reason to persist with it and constrain what rail ministers should be doing.

The author is a Rajya Sabha MP and former Union minister.

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