January 4, 2018

Speaking at ​​5th R K Vir Memorial Lecture, in New Delhi

The rest of the programme can continue after that, but I will seek your indulgence, because I have a party meeting to go to soon after this where my party President would have already reached at 7.30, and I am already very-very late.

But delighted to meet you Shri Prakash Narayanji, former Chairman of the Railway board, Shri Ghanshyam Singhji, of course, is working with us as member, Traction, taking on very challenging assignments going forward. Shri VK Aggarwal is also working as Additional Member Electrical. Devendraji, I am sorry to have cut you short on your plans, but I have no choice for lack of time. Dr Mukhopadhyay, Shri N Venkateshan, my most respected and … I was always very fond of Mrs Veer. In fact, great to meet her after so long, I don’t know when we would have last met, probably, 4-5 years back or maybe when Papa was there. Longer than that, yeah. My father passed away in 2008, so we must have met sometime before that probably.

But it’s a matter of great pride for me that both families, the Vir family and my family were associated since, of course, ever since I was born. That much I know. But since papa and Mr Vir did their engineering at the Banaras Hindu University, and if I am not mistaken they both passed out in 1949, together.

Did uncle also do electrical and mechanical both? Oh, so they must have been class fellows in the same class, because papa also did electrical-mechanical, the joint programme. And, over the years, I think the affection that I was privileged to receive from uncle and aunty was truly exceptional, more so because all of us in the outside world, who at that point of time used to enjoy the charm that Indian railways used to represent in the good old days. I am a little concerned that we don’t have that charm anymore in the Indian railways or travelling in the Indian rail.

And truly that is the work that I am trying to do, how can we restore that charm back into rail travel. But I remember it used to be great to look up to the persona that Mr Vir always carried with him, and I think that was what the Indian railway services always reflected – each one of you who’s given your life, worked years and years, uncle himself would have worked 35-36 years I am sure. Each one of them has built the railways – I wouldn’t say kilometre on kilometre – but literally, in every respect, in every different department, each one of these illustrious leaders of the Indian railways have built this railway and made it today, probably, one of the world’s largest networks, and a network – since uncle was from the electrical side amongst the various services – it will be the first network in the whole wide world, which will be 100% electrical.

And I don’t think all of you assembled here and my colleagues can give a more fitting tribute to the memory of Shri RK Vir, than ensuring that as India moves towards the New India, Prime Minister has already said that India should plan to make a New India by 2022 – an India which is free of poverty, an India which is free of corruption, an India which is rid of casteism and communalism, an India where the marginalized sections of society can truly feel empowered, an India where everybody has his home, everybody has access to quality education, healthcare, I am sure the billion passengers who travel by Indian rail every year, maybe more than a billion – 2.5 crore per day, so that’s nearly 800-900 crore passengers travelling every year in the Indian railway.

I think it’s equally incumbent on all of us to create a new Indian railway which can serve the needs of these 1000 crore passengers and truly make them get that joy of travelling in Indian railways back again. I remember the good old days when a train journey started from the breakfast of cutlets and toast, even the tea used to taste better in the Indian railways. I think, over the years, maybe demands of passengers, the growing traffic, the growing needs of freight movement, overloaded tracks, lack of sufficient investment in the system, I am sure we have all had a fair share of challenges in developing the railways.

And, as one of the members of the board mentioned in a meeting that we were doing, come hail or storm or rain or whatever, the fact is we still manage to move thousands and thousands of trains. Hopefully, we will make them more punctual surely, but we still manage to move all of them day in and day out despite all of these constraints. And I think it’s only because of all the work that all these stalwarts in the industry, all the stalwarts from the rail family have put in, the number of hours and years that they have all put in that has helped the railways reach where it is.

In fact, if one looks at Mr Vir’s initials, I don’t know whether it’s something which you all have already given him a title, but he was actually a visionary of the Indian railways – somebody who moved the railways from the steam engine age to more and more of electrification. And aunty, I am sure he will be delighted to know that we are now planning to take a quantum leap in the electrification programme.

In fact, the figures so far, I was seeing what happened 4 years before we came in and this 4 years , we will almost be expanding the rail network, the route kilometres which are electrified from an average of 654 kilometres done between 2010 to 2014 every year to about 1500 kilometres every year between 2014 to 2018. That’s the kind of quantum jump in electrification.

Of course, Ghanshyamji has a much more bolder target, he has to do 8000 kms per year going forward. 4000 – 6000 and 8000, and then sustain it at 8000. And it’s totally doable.

In my humble opinion and on more than one occasion whenever journalists are grilling us, whenever people are talking, the analysts, the investors, the financial world, very often their first question is ‘are you thinking of privatising the railways?’ And to my mind, it’s a very stupid question. Because the railways is not just one commodity or one company which does a public service for profit. The railways is also our national utility, our national means of transport for millions and millions of people, poor people, people living in the remote parts of India, rural India, having to move large distances for work, go long distances for religious purposes, and all of these people cannot just be a matter of profit or loss. They are truly our stakeholders for whom we are a service, a public service, and it is that public service and that noble intention to provide service to all our stakeholders that really drives the railway network.

I believe good things are happening and will continue to happen, hopefully, at a faster pace in the Indian railways. We have a long journey ahead of us, but that journey is possible given the kind of talent that I am seeing in the railways, given the kind of commitment that I am seeing in the railways. Very often, we tend to have an impression from outside which is very different from the reality within. I myself had a lot of prejudices when I came into this department. I had shared with some of my colleagues who may have had the misfortune of participating in some of my very long review meetings. But I do hope that misfortune will result in some change in mindset in the Indian railways. So maybe the meetings may have been long, but I do hope there is some substantive outcomes that come out of all those hours that we are all spending together. And I had apprehensions about whether we can really change the way things were and just before coming here, amongst one of the meetings that I had in parliament was the meeting with the RDSO officials, the Research Design & Standards Organisation.

And I was delighted to see the enthusiasm with which they were reporting to me that they have been able to put the entire process of approvals on their website, transparently available to the whole world to see. With the excitement in their voice when they said that we had 640 odd applications pending 3 months ago, it’s down to somewhere around 300 or 350 right now and they are hoping to clear that backlog quickly.

We have removed all deadlines or time bound empanelment processes, so now RDSO is open for business 365 days in a year, anybody can apply any time online for any product that RDSO needs to certify. We are hoping to expand the vendor base, expand the supplier base through a quantum jump in that so that there is better quality, better competition. We have put deadlines on every item and how much time they will approve an item. Of course, I have not yet seen that myself, these are the deadlines that RDSO has set up. I would urge one of the members to take it upon himself and review all those deadlines before I sit down and see that, so that we can really make them efficient. It should not be that we are putting in too much flab in our approval process.

And I do hope all of these small changes will collectively impact the transformation that we are hoping to see in the Indian railways. And as Gandhiji had once said, and I think that very much applies to Mr Vir also, ‘it’s not the man that makes the vision, it’s the vision that makes the man.’ And in some sense, all of you have that ability to envision a better railway for India, envision better passenger services, envision faster trains, envision modern technology.

And Prakashji, if you don’t mind, though I will not have the privilege of listening to your lecture, but I will certainly ask Ghanshyamji to brief me or send me a copy, you just briefly mentioned that you believe that this change in management outlook to bring in a general service for all technical aspects of railways is not a good idea. I assure you, you are entitled to your opinion. But I can share with you that it is the silos in which we have run these railway for 160 years, which is the bane of the problems that we are standing with today. The fact that we cannot see, have a holistic vision of the railway, I have yet to do one review, not one review in 4 months and I would have done not less than 150 or 200 different meetings in the railways so far.

I have yet to do one review where I could get an answer from one person to a simple question. It is always a piecemeal answer. It is always an answer where Mr Gill will say ki ‘Ba ba ba’, this aspect I know, the rest Mr Prakash will tell you. Then you look for Mr Prakash where he is. If he is in the office where he is, call him. If he is in that meeting you are lucky, and then Mr Prakash will give you a second aspect of the answer and say please contact Mr VK Agarwal for the rest of the answer. Then you contact Mr Agarwal and he will say no, no, I have nothing to do with this subject, the real you need to talk to is Dr Mukhopadhyay.

It is these silos, this absolutely irrational way of thinking that we have developed in the railways, not going beyond our brief which caused 23 people to die in Elphinstone Road disaster at the stampede over there. The fact that for 18 months after a project is sanctioned, we could not settle a design (inaudible), the parameters of your tender and come out with a process and build a bridge, to do which today the army has to come in and build a bridge for the railways in Mumbai.

I think the time has come for us to evolve, time has come for all of us to reflect, is this the best way to work? Are we doing justice to the nation? And if I am allowed a little humour, without being misunderstood, does the nation deserve this kind of travel a 160 years after the Indian railways was started? Are we forever going to live in that colonial era of the British? Is our mind going to be more bothered about the (inaudible) peons and the linesmen that we can get to work in our homes? Or are we now going to start thinking of this as an opportunity to serve the country. That’s the choice all of us in the Indian railways have to make today.

The response that I have got from my colleagues in the railways is truly fabulous. I have always concerned, I remember when I took that first decision, I hope woh implement ho gaya hai, aisa to nahin hai ki surreptitiously wapis diya, back to the good old days. Ghanshyamji aap se pooch raha hoon, the linesmen and all, 8-8, 10-10 log jo bungalows mein kaam  karte the? Nahin but woh sustain hona chahiye, and even after I don’t remain a Railway Minister anymore.

But really, it’s time for all of us to think. Are we doing justice to the faith that the people of India that a 1000 crore passengers, people who move a thousand…. how much traffic do we move? A billion tonnes of traffic? 1.1 billion tonnes of freight that is moved through our railways, are we doing justice to them? Can we justify that a train comes out of Mumbai, reaches Delhi in 5 days carrying that cargo, is that truly our best potential? Can we not plan better time tables, can we not plan our work for track renewable better?

Is this nation doomed to perpetually have delayed trains in fog, or can we find a solution to that? These are not difficult things in my humble opinion. I may not be an engineer like all of you or I may not have very great technical knowledge, but I think by first principles I can at least understand this much that a railway which has 65,000 km of route, which serves nearly a 1000 crore passengers every year cannot sustain on a signalling system where you still have red, green, amber and yellow, and you are dependent for the motorman’s ability to be able to see that signal in time, and signal passing at danger is still going to be one of our criteria to decide whether a man is doing his job well or no. And allow the world to go so far ahead.

I certainly don’t think that’s the kind of India that we all want to make in or live in and that’s not the kind of India the youth of today expect from most of us in our age group, most people here in this room would be probably on the wrong side of 50, like me. But truly, we will all have to reflect, and that is why we will urge you Prakashji that it is the leaders like you who have spent so many years in the railways, who will have to think is this the best way to run an organisation or are there better ways to do it. Is an engineer who comes out of college today only an electrical engineer?

After all, I think out of a 4-year programme, probably, the first two years are absolutely common and I think a good engineer would easily pick up what is mechanical engineering. There is no rocket science in signalling anymore. All our brilliant youngsters who are doing electronics work or software development and all, most of them had – there was no electronic engineering at one point of time. These are acquired skills which come very easily to somebody who wishes to acquire them.

I think times have changed, world has moved on. We in India will have to choose, are we going to be living in the past or are we going to prepare ourselves for a glorious future, a future where the railways gets defined with integrity, railways gets defined as a hub of innovation, the railways gets defined for new insights into better mobility. I think the time has come to change our way of working, our way of thinking and we don’t even have the luxury of time to wait. The nation is in a hurry. We will have to do it now and today.

Gone are the days that we could afford to have committee upon committee making recommendations, working for years on simple subjects with hardly any outcomes which can truly justify such a huge setup. I am sure with the blessings of all the illustrious railway men who have served this brilliant organisation for so many years, the families of the railway men and women, and the commitment that this government has to make the Indian railways a vibrant, extremely responsive organisation serving the needs of the nation, working proactively, planning ahead of time, ensuring the safety of everybody who travels on the train along with quality service, bringing in integrity into the system.

And I was shocked, the train travel, the journey that I did, main khud baitha hoon train main, usmain bhi people were there without a reserved ticket. I don’t know what the ticket checkers were doing. Main khud baitha hoon train mein. But technology can be introduced, newer ideas have to come into shape the Indian railways to address the needs of a modern India. And I am sure, we will have aunty’s blessings, we will have the blessings of all our colleagues, former and present, and future. Whatever I have seen of this family has only made me even more confident that we can do it, has empowered me to believe that we shall do it. And the only way we can do it is when we all work together as a team, when we all work with that same commitment which I remember Vir uncle having in those good old days, that commitment to serve.

And I appeal to all of you let us collectively open our mind to the new world to the new world that is emerging around us, a world where 3D manufacturing, artificial intelligence, driverless cars – the whole world is changing. We cannot afford to live in the past. We have to envision a railway where probably every train goes high speed. We will have to envision where if a train is late, you get a money back for your travel. We will have to envision a railway where you can guarantee and commit goods moving from one destination to another in a defined timeframe. We will have to bring back the, as they say in the financial world, we will have to bring back the mojo in our industry, in our business.

And when you sum it all up, I think it’s bringing back the charm to Indian railways. I wish all of you well. I wish aunty long life. I hope she continues to bless us in our endeavours. And I do hope Prakashji will continue to receive your wise advice, your continued support, your encouragement in whatever little work we are able to do to make the railways truly the engine of growth of this country.

Thank you very much.

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