About three years ago, Dilip D’Souza concluded that liberalization had done little to improve India’s economy. I had pointed out that his conclusion was fantastic because it was based on just one train journey and a few anecdotal evidences.
He now rarely writes about the economy but that shouldn’t deter me from ruminating on the economy in a similar fashion. Based on a train journey. But little or no anecdotal evidence.
First about the train itself. Travelling to Chennai from Bangalore by a Shatabdi is an informative experience. Once launched with much fanfare, this has metamorphosed itself into an overpriced, stuffy, uncomfortable and shoddily-serviced beast. About 12 years ago, the Shatabdi’s speakers greeted you with a string of welcoming pleasantries. This was followed by a flight-like sketch of the route, the services available on-board, and rounded off with a have a pleasant journey pleasantry. The train err..stewards served snacks–with rather surprising variety –at regular intervals.
Under Lalu Yadav’s booming train economy, the speakers have been muted, the variety reduced, and the taste, tasteless. You need to force yourself to feel cool to pretend the AC works, and the array of seats reminds you of the cramped seats of yesteryear cinema halls. Not to mention the take-it-or-leave-it attitude of the stewards when you politely question them about a minor lapse in the quality of service. To be fair, you cannot fault Lalu for everything.
Closer investigation reveals certain interesting findings. They actually stare at your face.
Back to Dilip D’Souza. I choose his name because he is akin to a gold standard in these matters. The government has been quick to capitalize on some of the largesse that has come its way thanks to liberalization. So we find on, and inside almost every train, advertisements that assault our senses. As I type this, I see that Syndicate Bank has plastered senseless ads on all the 108 seats in my compartment. More well-endowed companies have similarly bought ad space for entire bogies. You now need to strain your eyes to catch a display of Southern <insert your zone here> Railways, which was the only thing prominently visible a few years ago on them bogies. The answer to what Indian Railways does with the ad revenues is anybody’s guess. The almost five-fold price difference I paid for this train is hardly justifiable. Barely-working air-conditioning doesn’t count. Neither does a bottle of “mineral” water. I’m more comfortable sitting in the regular train because I can at least stretch and/or fold/cross my legs. I could’ve forgiven all these if this train ensured that I reached Chennai faster than the regular beasts. Unfortunately, I save a little over one hour.
Contrast this with the way airline operators are lobbying hard to get the government to urgently upgrade infrastructure at airports. Contrast how they vie with each other–the battle of airline ads (about a year or so ago) outside the Bombay airport is a positive example of how privatization ultimately benefits you and me. A very recent instance is what I saw at the new Bangalore airport. A private taxi operator had donned his drivers in red T-shirts that screamed anywhere in Bangalore, Rs.300 only. This was in open competition to other cab operators who charge between Rs.15-18 per kilometer to ferry you into the city. In the Indian context it is more appropriate to say non-socialist-governmental interference, than mere privatization.
It is interesting that Dilip D’Souza has rarely written any mainstream article on the state of Indian economy ? Whatever happened to his train-journey observations ever since the UPA took over and in an election year, posted a record inflationary achievement of 11% just last week? This is surprising since the UPA’s economic policies have been variously praised as communal-socialist pro-poor, socially just, and all-inclusive. From stifling subsidies to the failed rural job guarantee dole scheme, this regime has just about tried to appease every known vote bank.
I vaguely recall reading a nugget about the Indian Railways. This was written during the heydays of Indira Gandhi. It stated that the Indian Railways got the script completely wrong by projecting the Railways as “an instrument for national integration” instead of pitching it the way any large business corporation does. There lies your clue.