Friday, October 27, 2006

Lalu is our Ronald Reagan, September 24, 2006

Train journeys have increasingly become a part of my life. My ancient mother had been ailing in an ashram on the banks of the Beas River in Punjab, and I would try to visit her as often as I could. But she was 91 and age finally caught up with her. She passed away one night after living a life that I expect was better than that of most of my countrymen.
Visiting her meant lots of journeys and before I knew it I was addicted to the railway. I can now make a reservation sitting at home on my computer, pay with a credit card, and print my own e-ticket. If I don’t have a printer they deliver it in 24 hours. It is quite wonderful when something outstanding emerges from our public sector. Soon, I will be able to track my train’s progress at home or on a screen at the railway station via a satellite system.

In the early days of the Internet I predicted that computers would only take off in India when computer prices dropped to Rs 10,000 and when you could buy a railway ticket on the Net. Well, both have happened! And so, a revolution is underway and it is likely to be more profound than the mobile phone. The minister of HRD is, of course, oblivious of this because he is too busy dividing Indians. He doesn’t realise that India’s real divide is not caste but the English language and computers. Instead of trying to bridge these he is on his own casteist power trip.

The electronic ticket has left an army of reservation clerks unhappy. My South Indian friends used to complain that they couldn’t get a ticket on the Tamil Nadu Express during holidays without a bribe. This explains why the Railway unions have opposed e-tickets for years. But e-tickets are only a small part of a genuine renaissance in the Indian Railways. The bigger story is freight. In the past no one wanted to ship goods by rail because rail freight was expensive, inefficient and corrupt. Now a modern managerial mindset has set in and all sorts of innovative public-private partnerships are underway. The private sector is investing in wagons, container trains, new railway lines, and freight terminals. Meanwhile, a booming economy, competitive freight rates, and productivity gains have transformed profitability of the Railways.

Do we give the minister, Lalu Prasad, credit for this revival? He took over when the Railways were tottering financially, and if they had sunk we would have blamed him for “Biharing the railways”. Yes, he should get credit. Lalu’s success is not in what he has done, but in what he has not. He has surrounded himself with good people—Sudhir Kumar is one of them—and he has left them alone to run the show. This was also Ronald Reagan’s secret of success. Great managers have often led from the back.

The Indian Railways sell 4.8 billion tickets a year. This works out to 4.4 journeys per Indian. We are thus a nation on the move. When we are unhappy, we just pack up and go. Caste ties loosen when people travel and this is why Bihari migrants have united and are making a bid for power in the Punjab. Internal migration is our great safety valve against regional inequality, and because of it even Bihar will catch up one day.

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