One sliver of cheering news within the pall of gloom and despondency in which the BJP government at the Centre has enveloped the high-potential Indian economy is that it has taken the overdue decision to licence companies and firms to run private trains on the 68,000 route km network of the public sector monopoly Indian Railways (IR, estb.1853), starting as early as next month.
Readers with long memories may recall that right from the early 1980s as founder-editor of Business India and Businessworld, your correspondent has been advocating conversion of the highly corrupt and inefficient IR into Indian Railways & Track Corporation, invested with power to auction popular routes and destinations to private sector companies. For instance, most passengers on IR trains chugging between Kolkata and Jamshedpur are Tata Steel employees forced to endure the dirt, filth and discretionary corruption pervasive in Indian Railways, the world’s most labour-intensive corporation (1.4 million employees). Therefore, it would make eminently good business sense for Indian Hotels to run its own branded trains between the two cities. Similarly, private trains could run across the IR network countrywide, in much the same way as private and government-owned airlines fly Indian skies.
After 40 years, this wisdom has dawned upon the neta-babu brotherhood which holds the happiness of 1.3 billion Indians in its greasy hands. However, the first ‘privatisation’ contract to run the Tejas Express on the Delhi-Lucknow route has been awarded to IRCTC (Indian Railways Catering & Tourism Corporation), the wholly-owned subsidiary of Indian Railways which has acquired a notorious reputation for filthy unhygienic kitchens.
But that’s privatisation BJP-style. Earlier this year, public sector Hindustan Petroleum was sold to the public sector ONGC and the public sector Bharat Petroleum is proposed to be sold to the public sector Indian Oil Corporation. Why such faux privatisation? Because the brotherhood has too much to lose by way of patronage, kickbacks and commissions from genuine privatisation.