Republic Day Special Series




Chapter IX: Railways (Part 1)

In the 50 years after Independence, all the reins if of Economic planning were concentrated in the hands of the Central Government.

Excessive protection to the Industry, imposition of the entire burden of the capital formation on the Agriculture, and the commanding heights location of the Public Sector these three fundamental tenets of planning of course had serious consequences for both the Agriculture and the Industry. It would be important to examine adverse consequences of the Governmental intervention in other fields linked with Industry and Agriculture. Let us start with the Transport Sector. 

India is a nation of continental proportions. Till the arrival of the Muslim invaders, local artisans had little skills and had not mastered the engineering of constructing arches or domes. The rivers would be classed in the fair seasons by passages at the level of the river bed. The movement of the troops had to be planned in the light of forecast of monsoon and floods. Sadashiv Bhau Peshwa failed in transporting his forces across the Jamuna River before the advent of the monsoons with the disastrous defeat at Panipat, as a consequence. The Company Government commenced construction of bridges on major rivers. Governing a country of continental proportions and extension of the trade network pre-supposes safe and rapid means of transport. In their own interest, the Company Government went ahead with a very ambitious programme of the development of transport. During the same period Lord Bentinck had established law and order suppressing the Pendharis and the Thugs. The Post Office was established so that letters could reach even to inaccessible villages. Very shortly after the first steam engine pulled the train on English railway tracks, the train started running between Bombay and Thane. Railways were the dial secure and dependable mode of transport, which the British Rulers and the Traders required for establishing their dominance. 

Network of railways:

The British Rule saw the development of the world’s largest network in India. When the Independence came, the link of railway tracks admeasured 25,000 miles. The English left this network behind them. It is remarkable that this network was hardly extended at all in the post-independence period. The creation of Pakistan and separation of the rest-while East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) cut-off the railway link to Assam. A very narrow strip of land connected the North East Region to the main land. The Government was required to lay the railway track through this narrow strip as a matter of urgent military necessity. With this solitary exception, the railway network remained as it was at the dawn of Independence. This gave rise to some obviously ludicrous oddities. Cities like Bombay and Pune in Maharashtra are connected by rail to the major cities in the country. Often, the track is circuitous. The journey from Pune to Delhi in the north starts by the train moving firstly in the direction of the South towards Daund before turning towards Manmad in the north. The entire western strip remain untouched by railway services till recently. The intention appear to be that the road transport should replace railways as the basic mode of transport. It is true that laying of the railway track involves large initial expenditure. It also pre-supposes some long term planning but most of this expenditure is on local factors, like land, labour and primary instruments. Little foreign exchange is required. If the government of independent India had sustained the tempo of spreading the railway tracks maintained by the British it would have helped greatly in resolving the difficult problems of rural unemployment and over-burdening of the agricultural land. The experience during the period of extension of railways shows that the areas and agglomerations touched by the railway track starts on a developmental spurt. Cities like Dhule, Osmanabad and Latur in Maharashtra are eloquent examples of how cities can built if untouched by railways. Jalgaon and Bhusaval were small villages before the railway line gave its golden touch 

A bare touch of the rail track, and the Commerce started flourishing. Dhule, which was at a distance from rail line started building. Aurangabd, Parbhani, Nanded had the good fortune to find themselves on Manmad-Kacheguda line. Hence, they prospered by comparison. Beed, Latur Osmnabad trailed behind. Government of India had done nothing but maintained the tempo of the rail construction of the last date. The tempo of development of the last 50 years would have been higher even if it had given up all other forms of plan investment. The choice between Road Transport on one hand and the Railway on the other which have been made and in the light of yet another factor. No doubt, part of the money spent in even days of railway extension would have gone abroad. Otherwise, most of it would have been used for remunerating domestic factor of production,. Levelling of land, construction of dams, digging of tunnels, laying of wells most of these items of work are predominantly labour intensive. On the contrary, automobile technology is capital intensive. A large part of investment benefits economics of the other countries father than that of the country of origin. A large portion of aggregation population that stays on agriculture, simply because there is no alternative. This under employment, or concealed employment would have mopped up labour intensive projects, like Railway construction, were happening over the length and breadth of India’s territory. Not that Road Transport has no place in the modern infrastructure, which serves the same purpose of complementing the railway network. If the Government had concentrated on the efforts on railway construction supplemented by a proper feeder of road network, India would certainly not have been remained at the bottom of international community as it is today. The intensity of economic development of the most developed countries of today, like England, USA, Germany etc. provide voluminous evidence about the role Railways led transport revolution can play. In all these countries, Railway led transport revolutionised and this in turn facilitated the advent of both, the Agricultural and Industrial Revolution. Construction of railways appears to have put some money, albeit, small in the hands of large masses, which proved to be the subject of real capital formation for the Trade, Commerce and Industry.

The entire townships and the regions scattered from the railway lines declined. Those that felt the touchstone of the railway tracks experienced this golden epoch. It is understandable that in the flush of independence, somebody committed blunder and decided against the Railways. There are ample reasons to believe that mistake. Substantial vested interests wished to promote expenditure on Cement as also on automobile vehicles. The suspicion is further strengthened by what is happening now. The Railway Ministry appears to concentrated its energy on two items: one: providing SHATABDI or RAJDHANI like services on the lines joining metropolitan cities in major cities. For example, A/C coaches, catering services, and to some extent, speeding up the time schedule. Most of Engineering work undertaken by the Railway Ministry relates to broadening of Gauges or electrifying tracks. Upgrading of tracks has certain justification, no doubt. It facilitates through journey over long distance without having to change trains. But upgradation of existing services clearly indicates that bosses in the Railway Ministry are more interested in the comforts of urban population that have already benefited by the magi touch of railways over the last century. Millions of people that stay in areas that are ill-served by Railways is not a matter of much concern for them. Majority of villages are connected by Roads and are cut-off from the world every time the monsoon starts causing untold miseries. Clearly, that is not high on the agenda of the Rulers. For them, higher priority is to meet the expectations of the urbanised elite, who wish to have the comforts and perquisites they have seen during their journey abroad. 

Gauge broadening:

The theory that the railway lines in the country as a whole should have common gauges is advocated by many Traders, Industrialists etc. Army pitches in very strongly for uniformity of gauges to facilitate fast movement of troops. Uniformity of gauges certainly is an advantage as regards manufacture of Engines, Coaches and signalling equipment. The railways lines of the pre-Independence era have not been of the broad gauge. It would appear that advantage of uniformity of gauges is a recent discovery. It must be said in the defence of the Railway Planners that it was..... prepared by..... limits of budgetary allocation, longest rail tracks possible, keeping aside advantages of uniformity of gauges. On the other, the present campaign for logically to convert into Broad gauge appears to be not entirely bona fide. An illustration will clarify this point. 

The Marathwada region of Maharshtra was convulsed by the mass agitation to broadening of railway gauges in the region. It became a matter of regional pride and prestige. Most of the participants came from the region served by Manmad Kacheguda railway line. Though the agitators have taken the name of the whole of Marathwada region, in fact, they were agitating for only a part that was already served by the metre gauge line. The districts of Beed, Osmanabad and Latur, which suffered a setback by comparison, had little voice in the matter. Rather than give Aurangabad Nanded advantage, converting MG line serving it into BIG line, it would have been more advantages to leave MG line un-altered and construct a fresh BIG line to connect Beed, Osmanabad Latur onwards to Hyderabad. This would have. brought the net additional benefit to the Marathwada Region as a whole. More advanced Aurangabad Naded would not have suffered any disadvantage while all the new region would have come under the railway network. It is surprising that it was the voice of the people from the already urbanised area that prevail. he old rails became scrap metal and new BIG rail rails were laid.

In a way the reasons for preferring broadening of gauges to laying of new rail tracks is understandable. Laying through tracks pre-supposes advanced planning and foresight. This certainly was not the strong point in the post-independence era. Ad-hocism clearly tilted in favour of urban, affluent section can only go to favour upgradation of existing tracks than laying new ones.


(... continued in Part 2)

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