Suresh Prabhu’s way to modernise Indian railways

From The Hindu Business Line

At a recent meeting with Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Prabhu sought to enlist the search engine’s expertise with Big Data analytics to mine the humongous amounts of data generated by the Railways as it ferries some 8 billion passengers every year. The intention is to leverage this data and set up alternative revenue streams that will financially shore up the Railways and enable it to provide better – and safer – train services.

“Nowhere in the world has something like this been tried before, certainly not on this scale,” Prabhu told corporate leaders who had come together on Sunday as part of the ‘Breakfast with BusinessLine’ series of interactions, at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Chennai.

The 8 billion passenger number – even bigger than the world’s population – is accounted for by the fact that many thousands of passengers make multiple train trips. And the initiative with Google fits in with Prabhu’s broader mission to “change the prevailing mindset” at the “antiquated” organisation to attune it to the rigours and demands of the marketplace.

All through the 90-minute interaction, barely three weeks ahead of the Railway Budget, Prabhu highlighted, without giving away any Budget insights, his repeated emphasis on institutionalising gradual, but sure-footed, “structural changes” within the organisation.

Three pillars

The three pillars of those changes, he said, are delegation of authority – a tall order in what is arguably “the most centralised organisation in India” – transparency of decision-making and the embrace of technology to enhance service standards.

In response to falling freight and passenger traffic, Prabhu said he had been nudging the Railway authorities to expand the basket of freight commodities. And as part of its endeavour to enhance revenue from non-core avenues, the Railways is looking to leverage its huge land bank through the commercial development of 400 train stations.

BusinessLine Editor Mukund Padmanabhan, who moderated the discussion, described Prabhu as the “reformist face of the Central government”. Prabhu highlighted the many incremental ways in which transparency and delegation of authority were being ushered in.

“Since becoming Minister, I have not seen a single tender; all that work, including the powers of estimates, has been delegated to GMs,” Prabhu said. Likewise, the time-frame for issue of tenders for new projects had been abridged from 18 months to just six months, which accelerates the whole process, he noted.

ISRO tie-up

In response to audience questions on rail safety, Prabhu said that the Railways would by Tuesday sign an agreement with ISRO to use geo-spatial technology to set up warning systems for unmanned level crossing. In a railway network as big as India, built on antiquated systems, lowering accident incidence to zero, which is what he wanted, was very challenging, he added.

Prabhu expressed the hope that an independent railway regulator, a persuasive case for which had been made by the Bibek Debroy-led committee, would be established “as early as possible” and certainly within the five years envisaged.

Asked if even an independent regulator could reasonably address the politically sensitive issue of fare rationalisation, Prabhu stated emphatically that only an institutionalised mechanism of economic decision-making could balance the long-term interests of the Railways, the social considerations and the political balance that underlay such decisions.

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