The railway budget by Mamta Banerjee was surprising only in its details. We have known in India from the past that Railway Ministers (RM) reward their constituencies(in the case of the railways, it is their respective states). The earlier RM's Laloo Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Ram Bilas Paswan have done it within my political memory. So it was known that Mamta would provide the goods to Bengal in keeping with trend and this is what has happened in the Railway Budget for 2009.
My home state, Bihar, has been the beneficiary of the earlier RM's (from Bihar) munificence when I was living in Delhi. The rail connectivity to Patna from Delhi was one of the sectors which drastically transformed. The choices in numbers of trains, speed, as well as the services in trains improved considerably. However, since I have left Delhi and moved to the North East, I see the criminal neglect, AC coaches crawling with cockroaches, dirty, the negligent attendant, even in the premium class Rajdhani trains. After nine months in this part of India and many train journeys, it has led one to conclude that this is the norm. If you take the North East Express from NewJalpaiGuri (NJP) to Patna, in the non-AC sleeper coaches, which apart from being filthy are full of military men travelling home for holidays, the passage is lined with steel trunks and movement is a hazard. The journey from NJP to Guwahati in sleeper coaches is equally bad, with a large number of people who do not possess reserved tickets. In the last journey, I can safely assert that those without reservations out numbered us.
The litany of railway complaints is never ending, we all have our share of anecdotes, but the larger point I wish to make, is that in the challenges that India faces in the next couple of years, it would be difficult to improve or maintain the system in this political culture where essential services play the spoils of election victory. Important to note that financial health of the Indian Railways has not even been considered in this analysis, reflective of how the RM's think. There is financial logic, there is social logic and then there is political logic, the Indian system appears to be working only with the political. The current state of affairs will not improve the lives of the majority of Indians and nor will it help in keeping our state owned services in a healthy condition. Not being a blind liberaliser, especially of essential services, nor am I, a dogmatic 'privatisation is hell' believer but yet I am appalled at the details of how this country is run. In order to keep the essential services running without breakdowns, India needs to respect financial and social logic. The political has to take a back seat.
The RM's appointed by the government in New Delhi, are ministers for the entire country and not for any select province. We already have political leaders representing communities, tribes and caste. Are we never going to get the notional 'Indian' in the ministry? China's technocratic governance is a model worth examining. We, in India, should be looking to learn from China then perhaps, we can imagine competing.
The example of Air India and its request to the government for a bail out package, is a good example about the short sightedness of the way government services are abused in the country. If we imagine the railways in the same situation, imagine the crisis, it would result in drastic measures and lending agencies will demand their pound of flesh, they will run it in the basis of financial logic. In short sighted political greed, the political class has lost the larger picture. If after 20 years, Mamta Baneerjee were to become the Railway Minister again and the current trend continues, while importance of the railways will continue, the government may just not find the money to make social decisions, never mind political ones.
One would like to state something, one has been thinking over for sometime now, that central government ministries (to begin with) should be handled by experts. The Railway Ministry should be run by someone from the Railways, the Human Resource and Development Ministry by an educator. And these should not be political appointments rather they should be selected on the basis of merit and their appointment approved by the Parliament. It goes against the grain of the Indian system of representation but these experts could be collectively responsible to the Prime Minister and the Parliament. The Prime Minister can be appointment as it exists but his team of ministers should be 1. experts 2. non-partisan.
Extra-ordinary times need extra-ordinary measures, the challenges that India faces due to its population are not and cannot be handled effectively by generalist bureaucrats or politicians, who merely win elections on the basis of their community support (a norm). The coming challenges need professionals. I will digress to illustrate the point I have in mind. I am at a new university, established in 2007. We are as basic as it comes, with infrastructure even smaller than a primary school at this stage. I have been here for the past nine months. It has been a learning experience at governance and how things work and the importance of individuals towards putting in place, systems which will outlive many a human lives. Any system being instituted or managed is reduced or elevated to the understanding, vision of the individual who mans it. There are systemic checks and balances but the individual space is enough to cripple a system or raise its level, in the discharge of its services. It is at this point where corruption finds its way into the system. Individuals are important and in the sheer rush of numbers, this country and its systems have forgotten the individual, having been reduced, by and to the lowest common denominator due to the numbers. It is going to be an individual's personal world view which will stamp it self on the country and its institutions. It is not merely about setting up structures, once set up, the individual (not the community, tribe, province, caste) is the key to interpret the space. The point is being well documented in how the various processes at my young university are shaping. A lot of it is in good hands but some of it leave much to be desired. But it does provide a convincing argument with regard to the importance of individuals.
The political class in the past few years have offered very few individuals who were above their sectarian or provincial parochialisms. But from the specialists, one can name, numerous individuals, who have excelled and instituted world class organisations while on government appointment. It is time, India turned to these men owing to their proven track record. And unfortunately for the votaries of corporate India, I do not have businessmen in mind. I have in mind people like MS Swaminathan, Verghese Kurian of Operation Flood (Amul), APJ Abdul Kalam for the service in Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO), E. Sreedharan of Konkan Railway and now Delhi Metro, and many others of who I am not aware. The government sector individuals are used to illustrate the point as they worked within the 'social' world of the country with governmental briefs (a limiting system), at government salaries and yet managed to change their sectors. It is not to suggest that this is a fool proof system and will be perfect but it will definitely bring to better skills, decisions and a more enlightened governance for the nation.
In a similar manner, the various provinces in India could switch over to such a system with the Chief Minister as a political appointment and the team of experts as ministers responsible to the state assembly. It would be akin to the American system where individuals with detailed proposals in their respective areas are able to make it to the government. There remain problems with regard to the basic democratic system envisaged by the constitution but if we start with such an idea, we can improvise and tailor it to achieve the necessary ends, which is to provide good and durable services to all citizens of the country.