(This is a reprint from NewsBred).
Railways was in news for different reasons last week. It wasn’t rail-budget (that the NDA government did away with in 2017 after 92 years); any train accident or cockroach in your dinner tray. It was because Sonia Gandhi, the matriarch of Congress, had opened her mouth and become a butt of joke.
Sonia makes few public speeches. But the other day, she spoke in Parliament and accused BJP of clandestinely “privatizing” Modern Coach Factory in Raebareli, Uttar Pradesh despite it producing coaches beyond its capacity. Her heart beat for thousands of employees who could be laid off. In perfect sync, All-India Railwaymen Federation (AIRF), with 1.4 million members, echoed Sonia’s fears.
Little had Sonia known of the muck it would invite on her own Congress party. Railway minister Piyush Goyal rose in reply and the skeletons of Congress regime began tumbling out. In 64 years, between 1950-2014, Congress had added only 13,000 odd tracks to its network; that Modern Coach Factory produced not a single coach since it was set in motion in 2007; and some unfinished projects in West Bengal date back from the 1970s. We would come to “privatization” bit in a while for a bigger Railways story awaits our attention.
India runs on Railways. Passenger services (11 million passengers per day) account for two-third of its operations; the remaining one-third is freight (6 lakh tonnes daily). In terms of revenue though the role reverses. Freight accounts for two-thirds of revenue. By 2050, India would account for 40 per cent of global Rail activity.
This is just a starter. India is poised to become world’s most populous nation by 2024. Most of it would be young, needing goods and that too in double quick time. India would’ve 829 million Internet users by 2021. It’s a prospect which salivates E-commerce biggies. It also has the government drooling towards its 5 trillion-economy goal. Transportation infrastructure, along with energy, is the biggest economic growth driver for the country. A 7% or 8% growth is impossible without an efficient Railways.
The worry is most of India’s transportation business still runs on land. That’s because our railway tracks carry both passengers and freight. It slows up the goods movement to a crawl. It makes transporters wary; and the investors reluctant. They have good enough reasons too. The account book of Railways show that out of every rupee it earned, 93 paisa was spent just to keep it chugging and alive.
In comes Dedicated Freight Corridor. Demand for rail freight movement is infinite. It’s government’s priority too. Two corridors under construction are expected to be functional over the next two years. The Eastern and Western Corridor covers a total stretch of 3,360 kilometres. The Eastern Corridor stretches from Ludhiana (Punjab) to Dankunj (West Bengal) and the Western one lasts from Jawaharlal Nehru Port (Mumbai) to Dadri (Uttar Pradesh). Visit any of its sites and you would be stunned by the speed of operations in sorting out locomotive and wagon specifications, energy maximization, freight logistics, track safety, commercial and marketing plans and skill-enhancement centres etc.
Freight is a game India can’t lag behind. While inland waterways, coastal shipping, air and road transport are doing their bit, Railways has to be the prime mover to prepare India for its next decade. The matter is not just of economy, it’s of environment too. While jobs and revenue are paramount, the matter of environment is one of life and death.
Fortunately, Indian Railways has pulled up its stocks. Nearly 45 per cent of all our rail nework is electrified today and rest are running on diesel locomotive. No longer we are reliant on steam engines which are run on coal and its fossil fuel lay our environment waste. Most, if not all, of our superfast trains hav electric engines. More and more tracks are being electrified. Varanasi and Chittranjan manufacture all types of railways engines. Coach factories in Perambur, Kapurthala, Raebareli etc produce the compartments on which India runs.
And talk of passengers. Since 2000, the growth of passengers using Indian Railways has gone up by 200 per cent. It would only grow further. India needs more and more short-distance trains which are electric and power efficient. Superfast trains, lampooned by opposition, are critical too.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off India’s first semi high-speed train, Vande Bharat Express, earlier this year. This plush 16-coach air-conditioned, self-propelled train doesn’t have a locomotive. It runs between Delhi and Varanasi with halts at Kanpur and Allahabad. The 780-km long journey is completed in eight hours and slices off three hours from it earlier duration. This is India’s fastest train to date. The looks and interiors of the train have the feel of a commercial airplane. Hold your breath, 130 similar semi high-speed trains are in the pipeline.
Sure, all this needs investment. Government is doing its bid to attract private players (General Electric is already there). Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is being sought. Public-Private Partnership is the need of the hour. Corporatization plan is mooted, like the one of Indian Railway Rolling Stock Company to hive off seven of its production units and associated workshops which Sonia Gandhi mischievously termed as “privatization.” Modernization drive has so far fetched Rs 1.21 lakh crore of investment. Indeed, the estimation is of $190 billion investment by 2050. High-speed trains could save India up to $64 billion on fuel expenses. The diesel cost presently is Rs 15000 crores per annum.
After an existence of 176 years, Indian Railways is getting the attention it deserves. No longer those railway budgets which were only meant to announce schemes and new routes and never saw the light. It desperately needs investment and India is exploring all its avenues. To run it down as “privatization by stealth” is ethical debauchery.
(This piece can also be read in NewsBred)
Indian Express of February 25, 2016 is a collector’s item. It’s imaginative, creative and like all such things it takes great liberty in dispensing with facts.
It’s imaginative for it gives a screaming full-page bottom-spread headline: “Quoting wisdom from 40 BC, misquoting Kashmiri poet (see the image),” even though there was no misquote from the person in question, Mr Venkaiah Naidu, Union Urban Development Minister. (More on it later).
It’s creative for it picks an exhortation for nationalism from ex-serviceman into a misleading headline: “Latest Wisdom: Bring a tank on JNU campus to instil nationalism in students.” (More on it later).
It’s factually wrong for it it splashes a three-decker headline: “Prof. shares piece on Khalid, ABVP burns effigy, blocks class” even as there is no mention in the report how ABVP “blocked” any student or students from attending one or any class (More on it later).
There is also the lead headline: “Smriti shines the light of treason” which could make a professor of English opt for a new paper roll in his toilet. But when agenda is an issue, language is a minor indiscretion.
All these are front-page headlines. None of them is in single column. Indeed, if there is any story other than concerning JNU row on front page, it’s a single column four paragraphs on forthcoming budget. The newspaper didn’t have space for rail budget due next day; the water crisis which has left the Capital parched or even the jat agitation where casualty is 28 by now.
What chance then there is for you to read about the unfortunate plane crash in Nepal which killed all 23 passengers aboard? The newspaper in its wisdom apparently believes that a “babu” unable to sleep at night because of worrying “mahaul”: (“Minister watching, Minority panel official says: Can’t sleep at night, mahaul -climate- worrying”) is worthy of a four-column display. Or that a retired octogenarian Supreme Court judge’s opinion on “sedition” is worth a second lead story.
All this concerned the Page One or Front Page. Let’s now move on to other pages:
Page 2: All stories barring two again concern the issues surrounding the JNU affair.
Page 3: Just one neutral story manages to find space on again a JNU-dominated page.
Page 4: By far the most neutral page in that just about half the page is on JNU affair. Things possibly are looking up.
Page 5: Darkness again. The entire page is devoted to JNU
Page 6: Not a single JNU story. Possibly the agenda is exhausted after all.
Page 7: Not a chance. The Jat agitation is blamed on—you guessed it right—JNU. This story takes up more than half the page.
Page 8: Again a page where you find JNU, along with Rohith’s death, filling up all corners.
Page 9: It’s again JNU and students all over.
Page 10: The entire page is advertisements and it apparently has broken the spell.
You can’t be serious that there is no JNU representation in the hollowed edit-oped spread (Page 14-15).
In case, by now, you are wondering whether I am mistaking any JNU Express newspaper with our “Journalism of Courage,” I can only disappoint you. It is indeed your revered newspaper. I can assure you though that you would only find business, arts and sports in their designated pages. There is no Mahesh Bhatt vowing the make his next movie on JNU affair or Indian cricket refusing to play for they are upset with JNU affair. (Oh my god, I might just have given them an idea!).
There is a saying: If your head is in the sand, your butt is in the air.
But let’s return to the unfinished “more-on-it-later” theme which I have mentioned at the start of the column.
Quoting wisdom from 40 BC, misquoting Kashmiri poet: The story begin with scarcely concealed contempt for Smriti Irani for having invoked a quote from 40 BC (they call it BCE now, you silly, unless you feel all your readers are Christians) to justify something in 2016.
(Ms Irani: you said you didn’t want to quote any Hindu sage lest be mistaken for a communal leaning. But quote you might anyone, you would still be up for ridicule).
But our real thrust is “Misquoting Kashmiri poet.” For the life of me, I couldn’t see how Naidu has misquoted this poet. The news item itself says that Naidu mistook it for a criticism of Modi government.
So the newspaper doesn’t see any difference between “misquote” and “mistook.” Quote comes with quotation marks. Mistook is a matter of interpretation. To replace one with another is mischievous.
Ironically, the newspaper itself misquotes on just the story above this one. It quotes a disgruntled minority commission additional secretary for saying “situation in the country is not allowing him to sleep peacefully,” even though newspaper admits that the official “reportedly” said it. The reporter’s source must be more than impeccable for a description from a third party he has deemed fit to put in quotes.
Latest wisdom: Bring a tank on JNU campus to instill nationalism in students: The story says a delegation of ex-servicemen met the JNU vice-chancellor and suggested ways to have a memorial on martyred soldiers inside the campus. Among the ways to make it happen, “the university is considering a wall of fame, showcasing a military tank or artillery…”
The import of this statement is laudatory. Still the newspaper’s headline makes it sound as if live tanks would roll down inside the JNU campus (a la Tiananmen Square in China in 1989).
The newspaper also buries in the end a reaction to US envoy Richard Verma’s comment on the “freedom of speech”. “(We) Challenge Verma to allow celebration of Osama (bin Laden) in any university in the US,,.”
Prof shares piece on Khalid, ABVP burns effigy, blocks class: The piece begins with the sentence that ABVP disrupted classes at the Lucknow University.
The story doesn’t have any mention of which classes were disrupted. It just mentions that students protested outside the sociology department. So, how and which class was “blocked ?”
It’s such an in-your-face Indian Express edition that the readers must brace themselves for more of it in days, months and years to come. (God helps the rail budge tomorrow). If it is not Dadri killing or “intolerance debate” or Aamir Khan’s concern or JNU, it would be something else it would pick up to raise the hackles on communalism and intolerance under the Modi government.
We would be watching. We would urge the newspaper to be its own conscience and live up to its reputation of “journalism of courage.”