So it is official. India will see private trains. This historic announcement was made yesterday.
Twelve clusters of trains. Over one hundred routes. (Side note: Happy to see multiple private trains planned from Ranchi). Each train to have a top speed of at least 160 kmph. The operator will purchase the train with their own money. They will be responsible for the interiors, maintenance and servicing of the train. However, the driver and guard of the train will be from the Railway. From what I’ve read, they can set their prices, a percentage of which will go to the Railways as a royalty.
It had been happening for a while, but slowly, almost on tiptoe. How did Modi sarkar start India’s first “private” train? Well, first the government began running a number of semi high speed trains named Tejas Express. Then, at the beginning of the second term, they launched another bunch of trains, also named Tejas express (I suspect this is deliberate), operated by IRCTC and not the Railway itself. And then they sold shares of IRCTC on the stock market, in some sense privatizing it.
And thus was born India’s first private train. Well, sort of.
You can see the amount of caution that went into managing perceptions around this. This caution was necessary. You don’t want to awaken the ghost of Nehru. It could still be lurking at the back of the mind of many Indians. Three generations of Indians were tutored to fear the private sector.
But everyone loves 1991. The ghost of Nehruvian socialism has slowly gone to sleep. But you can never be too careful. What if it wakes up?
Also don’t forget the intense bureaucratic resistance that the government must have faced in pushing through the idea of private trains.
But we are finally there. So far, so good.
For me, the most amazing part has been the public reaction to this. Hardly a squeak anywhere. The handful of people who reacted seemed mostly positive.
Privatization. So what?
I guess that is how new India thinks. I grew up in an era when the Vajpayee government selling off one public sector corporation (BALCO) was seen as something akin to the end of the world. When Vajpayee began moving on airport privatization, the noise was such that it seemed the sky would fall.
And now, we are talking private trains. No one seems particularly bothered.
In some corner somewhere, we know the Communists are crying. A bunch of workers unions also must have said something. But the protests lack teeth. They lack bite. In fact, even the opposition from the Communists has a kind of ritual character. They are going through the motions of protesting because they know it’s their job. They don’t expect their protests to succeed or even cause a buzz. The handful who are protesting seem bored by their own rhetoric.
Here is a radical idea: what if the ghost of Nehruvian socialism is not sleeping, but dead?
It might be. We should check its pulse. And once we have a confirmation, imagine all the good things that we can do for our country.
For PM Modi, this is the sort of thing that builds legacies. Fifty years from now, people will ask : who freed the Railways? And the answer would be Narendra Modi. Let us hope we have all bullet trains by then 🙂 Or who knows, perhaps a completely new form of transport?