Indian Railways is in a tranformative mode and largely beleived to be back on track. After completing two years in the office, in an interview with Organiser representative Nishant Kr Azad, Railway Minister Shri Suresh Prabhu spoke about his performance, challenges and vision. Excerpts:
How do you assess your first two years as Minister of Railways? What were the challenges you faced?
Very exciting and fulfilling! The last two years have been full of fruitful activity on all fronts of Railways. The organisation is in the forefront of economic development of the country. We have brought in over Rs 94,000 crore of investment in 2015-16; we have changed the perception of our travellers by taking care of their requirements. We have set mid-term goals for ourselves which we are striving to achieve.
Challenges were more internal than external. Externally, not many people had the confidence that we would be able to spend Rs 1 lakh crore. Internally, the challenge lay in building confidence among our own Railwaymen that we could ring in change in the organisation and that it was possible to achieve the targets we had set for ourselves. Long practised procedures and guidelines needed an overhaul. The biggest challenge, therefore, continues to be changing the mindset.
There is still a long way to go. The process has just begun and it will take time to complete, but we will overcome whatever challenges come in our way of achieving our goals.
What are the areas where you feel you could have done better?
We are trying hard on all fronts and may be two or three years down the line I will be in a better position to answer this question. However, safety continues to be an area of concern. Every mishappenings causes immense sense of distress. In this year’s budget I have launched a Mission for Zero Accident to achieve a target of zero accidents on our network.
Fare hike is a sensitive issue while managing Railways. How do you plan to deal with this?
Hiking fares is the easiest solution for bridging the expenditure gap. However, to bring in efficiency in functioning, we have started looking at cost optimisation measures. In 2015-16, we have saved about Rs 12,000 crore in our working expenses. Of course, a percentage of that can be attributed to the falling diesel prices but about Rs 9,000 crore is pure saving due to efficiency measures and I compliment my Railway team for that. We are now procuring power at a much cheaper rate and more savings are expected as we sign more long term PPAs (Power Purchase Agreements). We are improving our HSD procurement and inventory practices. We are also looking at enhancing revenues from non-tariff sources.
You gave voice to the customer by leveraging social media in an unprecedented manner. How did you get this idea?
We are an organisation delivering transport services, so we have to take care of our customers. We have a 24-hour cell to which all requests and complaints through the social media are directed and they, in turn, contact the relevant persons to provide help to our customers. The whole organisation is now sensitised to respond to immediately customers’ needs.
This is not about the idea. I feel this is my duty to the nation. I always wanted to provide a real time mechanism for customer complaint redressal. If a lady is in distress, then providing help after she has completed the journey is of no avail. It needs to be solved at that time. Social Media provides that spontaneity. I was always an avid user of Twitter and hence extending that to Railways was natural.
Railways failed to meet target of last year to collect revenues of Rs 141,416.05 crore and achieved only Rs 136,079.26 crore. If it continues to happen, how will you achieve your target of taking the capital outlay to Rs 8.56 lakh crore by 2019?
The global economy has been sluggish and has had a negative impact on our economy. The core commodities have suffered the most. But, all this is cyclical in nature. We are diversifying our goods basket, we are targeting to realise 20 per cent of our total revenues from non-tariff sources so as to broad base our sources of revenues. A small part of our capex (capital expenditure) is dependent on revenue surpluses, so I don’t visualise our capex programme getting impacted by revenue shortfall.
Indian Railways is in process of exploiting advertising potential. Do you have any specific plan for this?
We plan to quadruple the earning target this year through advertising income. We are getting a study done to determine our advertising potential and chalk out a long-term plan for the same. We have also set up a directorate for non-fare revenues as this is a major thrust area of our reform programme.
Parties in Opposition alleged that your reforms are for middle and upper class but not for poor. Your take on this?
We are running a system for the public of this country. We have to take care of all our customers. We are looking at improving facilities for all classes of passengers. We have announced a new category of trains, Antyodaya, this year which will be completely unreserved long distance trains for the common man. We are also trying to increase the number of unreserved coaches in trains. We are providing all kinds of conveniences for purchasing unreserved tickets. So we are doing whatever we can for the masses. We are providing mobile charging points and dustbins in the sleeper coaches.
Railway is still struggling with finance while seventh Pay Commission is in process which will add extra burden on railway. Do you have any vision for financial turnaround?
We have factored the Pay Commission payouts in this year’s budget and we hope to take care of our liability.
Do you think, railway needs a structural reform?
A thriving organisation needs to continuously evolve. We are also bringing in structural changes to keep our organisation ready for the changing times. We are trying to reorganise and create new structures so that we are able to discharge our functions more efficiently.
There are many tracks which have been single for the last many decades. How much time will you take to double them?
We have prioritised our projects and doubling of tracks is our priority. This year we have provided more than Rs 20,000 crore for doubling works. All these projects should be commissioned by March 2020.
The general perception is that, while passengers are paying enough for the food, they don’t get quality food. Do you have any plan to address this issue?
On this front we have announced a number of measures. We are planning to make food on Rajdhanis and Shatabdis optional. We are gradually shifting entire catering to IRCTC and they will be setting modern, state of the art base kitchens. We have started ordering of food through the IRCTC website as well. The consumer now has a wide choice of food available to him. We propose to expand e-catering services from 45 stations to all 408 ‘A-1’ and ‘A’ class stations. This will enable passengers to exercise choice regarding the food that they would like to order.
There’s been lot of media reports analysing on how government functioning has drastically changed under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. How do you look at the two years of NDA government?
Shri Narendra Modiji, is our guiding spirit and inspiration. He has encouraged us to take all possible measures to reform the Railways. He holds the firm belief that the development of Indian Railways is extremely important for the growth of the economy. He has reposed considerable faith in us to deliver on the reforms agenda and we strive our best to come up to his expectations.
Can you share your vision to make Indian Railways better?
I had elaborated my vision in this year’s Budget Speech. In the next three years, our biggest infrastructure project 'The – Dedicated Freight Corridor', would be commissioned and decongestion works would get complete. By 2020, we would be able to provide berths on demand and also run time-tabled freight trains. The average speed of trains would get doubled and punctuality would be about 95 per cent. My vision is to place Indian Railways among the best Railway systems in the world.