As per the history books, the sub-continent or the Indian Continent as it was known back then accounted for nearly 25 percent of World’s GDP before the East India Company arrived, today it is less than 3 percent. Not fair to entirely blame the British for this slide, as it has now nearly been 68 years since independence and sadly the graph has only been in the downward direction. Well, some would say that the material and mental destruction caused by the colonial masters was so severe, it is not surprising that it is taking us so long to come out of that trauma and to start progressing again on our own entrepreneurial merit – China and Malaysia by the way have been able to do so much quicker!
Anyway, the blame game aside, arguably one of the best infrastructure’s cum communication’s legacy left behind by the British has been that of ‘Railways’. The Railway network as laid out in the lengths and breaths of the Indian and the African Continents not only lifted massive areas of these regions out of poverty, but also played a significant role in spurring economic growth, development, urbanisation, national unity, and most importantly it helped towards achieving the goal of equitable distribution of the fruits of growth. As far flung and neglected areas got connected, the sheer link-up made their populace wake up to new economic realities and opportunities. While countries over the years have strived to maintain and upgrade this key tool of economic uplift and growth, Pakistan unfortunately has not only neglected this industry, but also its successive governments over the years have been guilty of appointing incompetent managers to run our Railways, resulting in its current state of utter mess. We hear all the fancy talk of Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation initiatives where British Rail was also a part of her privatisation program, but very few experts point out that the British Rail endeavour was more an exercise to instil corporate governance in its operational management than a mere sale to an individual or a business-house. Its routings and timing to achieve national goals on connectivity, public’s commuting facilitation, competitive-pricing of fares, and compliance to safety standards even today very much remain directly in the governmental domain. In fact, rationalisation of train fares in the UK tended to be an all important election manifesto debate amongst political parties in the recent (May 2015) UK elections held a few days back.
Coming back to the sub-continent, except Pakistan, the other countries have actually not fared so badly in managing their respective Railways’ affairs. Indian Railways (IR) continues to be a profit making enterprise, despite providing one of the lowest per mile rates in the world both on its passenger and freight services. Not only is it the largest employer in the world (not just in India), but also in reality provides an intangible subsidy (through its profit sharing) to economic activity in the Indian markets, making it the main contributor in maintaining India’s manufacturing competitiveness; apart from of course keeping India gelled and connected. Every Indian government has been conscious and very aware of the role of IR as the lynchpin of the Indian economy and little wonder that even in the latest budget the present Indian leadership has taken upon itself to strengthen this institution by announcing an initiative of US $137 billion investment in Indian Railways.
Actually the endeavour is much larger and based on capitalising on traditional Indian strength of its Public Sector Enterprises – State Enterprises still form 25% of the Indian Corporate sector. The larger plan envisages promoting innovation, growth and investment in state enterprises per se, which in-turn will partner and lead the Indian private sector into also making related investments. The idea in the own words of India’s Railway Minister, Suresh Prabhu’s is to, modernise Indian Railways on the pattern currently being witnessed in the USA - where the American Rail is on the revival and these days being quoted as the sector’s modern-day turn-around story – and to “restore this ‘backbone institution’ of the country to its former glory by using innovative techniques like introducing Yoga lessons for the stressed-out staff.” The plan is to make IR safer (CCTV cameras to be placed in all carriages and at key points in all stations), cleaner (toilets to international standards) and larger (build more lines and increase the speed of journeys on nine major routes). Further, Wi-Fi will be made available at the stations and in the trains; the surly front-line staff will be given lessons in “soft skills” to ensure traveling on India’s railways to be a more pleasant experience. The Indian railway system is amongst the worlds largest and cheapest, carrying 23 million people daily, and is still the main means of long-distance travel in a huge country. Interestingly, in all this any near-term (for the next 12 months) fare increase has been ruled out as the government moves to address the woes in this all important transport sector in order to achieve its pledges to revive growth. “The rail budget marks a paradigm shift from discussing coaches and trains to comprehensive reform. The IR is not only going from one place to another, but it is a powerful tool for speeding up India’s economy,” in Modi’s words.
Back to Pakistan Railways : It is obvious that we fall way short when we compare our efforts with those of India. But unfortunately, the legacy of our present government is of single-minded (and more often than not flawed) privatisation and not that of institutional turnaround-expertise. Corporate management, let alone one that also involves institutional revivals, is a dedicated subject requiring professional competence, vision, transparency and high ethical standards. Ironically, “loyalty to leadership” figures no where in the pre-requisites!