Sunday, October 1, 2017

India state capacity fact of the day - Railways edition

In the aftermath of the Mumbai Elphinstone Road overbridge tragedy, Sunil Jain writes about the challenges facing Indian Railways,
In 2012, the Anil Kakodkar panel said India needed Rs 1 lakh crore for fixing safety and said it wasn’t safe to use the 52kg/m tracks or the 43,000 ICF coaches – this got highlighted in all the recent accidents – but the Railways is too broke, so we fix what we can (albeit at a faster pace under Prabhu) and leave the rest to God. In the case of Elphinstone or the 8-10 people who die every day on Mumbai’s commuter trains – an analysis in TheQuint says while the locals are designed to carry 1,320 passengers, they carry over 4,800 – the answer is obvious: build more trains, make the stations bigger … but when the Railways loses Rs 35,000-40,000 crore every year in passenger traffic, of which around Rs 5,000 crore is in suburban traffic like in Mumbai, how do you pay for this even if you want to do all of this; and if by some stroke of luck, you get the money, where will the land come from to build new stations and tracks? If you move to the roads sector, we have 5 lakh accidents a year and 1.5 lakh people die in them – fixing this means more policemen, more speed-breakers, better-designed roads.
I have blogged earlier highlighting the challenges associated with addressing the problems of Indian Railways here and here

It has been reported that people have brought the  problems with the overbridge and the likelihood of stampede to the Railway Authorities, including the Railway Minister. This tweet conveys couple of important messages.
For one, it is classic bureaucracy. It is a well known practice in a bureaucracy for operational or implementation complaints (a corruption intimation or service delivery failure grievance) and requests (a public good or individual welfare benefit demand) submitted by citizens to higher level officials to get routinely endorsed down to the field level functionaries. What is not well known is that the vast majority of these endorsements end up getting lodged without any action. The main reason being that those at the cutting edge are either not equipped or do not have the resources or capacity to address them. It is not that those at the top can do better. 

How can a Divisional Engineer address a particular safety problem, when apart from keeping the show going on (trains running) with the threadbare resources at hand and several other contextual constraints, he also has to attend to tens of such safety problems and several other capital expenditure requirements with resources which can hardly meet a fraction of the needs? And even to meet those requirements, he has to wade through a stifling bureaucratic process. Talk about fighting a battle with both hands tied and eyes folded! 

Of course, an already insurmountable problem is compounded by the intentions, motivations, and incentives of the typical Divisional Engineer, which are not exactly aligned in the direction of achieving the objectives. 

Such submissions to the government have now shifted to the cyberspace. Twitter accords the convenience to do a similar perfunctory exercise of passing the buck. It's just that unlike the office files which have to be obtained through RTI queries, Twitter trails are in the public domain. Nothing has changed, and will change, unless the system has the resources - financial, personnel, and institutional - to be able to deliver. 

Another side is less discussed, but more relevant if we are to address such challenges. It is easy, with our tweet-happy tactile senses, for anyone to shoot off 140 (now 280) characters, especially if it also serves the purpose of both making our psychological selves feel better as well as score social brownie points by signalling one's commitment and interest in public issues. Even better, there is no cost or accountability associated with the tweet. We can tweet whatever we want and then sanctimoniously claim "I told you so" when the issue materialises (as it generally should). Like talk, tweet is cheap! 

But while tweeting away, do we realise that fixing potholes or building overbridges cost money and that does not grow in a tree? Indian Railways has no magic tree to grow the money required to address such concerns. The vast majority of resources required to address them have to come from those who use the trains. But we all know that both individually as well as collectively, we are unwilling to share anything close to the share of the burden required to meet out tweet-happy expectations. 

In a world where even the richest balk at paying their share of taxes and governments are starved of resources, and expectations have been raised sky-high, there is little meaningful that can be done to address such problems. So democratically elected governments are forced into doing events management and quick-fixes. 

Functioning systems require resources and state capacity, as well as civic spiritedness and willingness to shoulder responsibilities. It is a collective endeavour, part of a social compact. The problem is that each side fails to keep its side of the bargain and blames the other. The problems remain unaddressed. Incidents keep happening...

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ppl blame governments. but it's also the same in some private sector organisations.

In my previous company, software engineers were loaded with work. they had to fight big battles daily. Many times customers would complain. But coders have no bandwidth. If coders take special efforts to address a customer complaint averting a possible major crisis of future - they have to compromise on their quarterly goals. The repair work isn't appreciated because stopping a crisis isn't visible effect whereas missing a quarterly goal is. Instead, they are punished for not meeting quarterly goals.

The immediate instinct of coders was hence to deflect the complaints.

1) In the first stage, coder would respond saying that it's the problem with customer's computer. ask them to change browser, change computer, OS and so on. By this stage, many would think it's their problem and don't respond.

2) next stage - even if customer persists - then the list gets added to the task list. and it sits there eternally.

Once in a while, some crisis would happen and ppl realise that customer's complaints in the past were hints to these problems.

It's see the same case here.

It only got changed a bit when a competitor came and we lost customer to the competitor. But I don't see that happening in public services!

Gulzar Natarajan said...

See the point of your example. But how can we have a competitor to the government in many development and public good services?

The evidence of competition in railways (rolling stock operators) from the UK, which I have extensively blogged about, is far from comforting.

I have also blogged about how the cost of delivering such services, if by the private sector, would be much higher than the public sector.

But the point is competition. And creating enabling conditions that make Railway divisions within India compete with each other on safety and other operational parameters may be a very effective approach to address these problems.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I too intended to say the same. Sorry. I did not explain myself properly.

By "But I don't see that happening in public services!" I didn't mean that there was lack of efforts to induce competition, what I meant was that the mechanism of 'competition induced quality' doesn't seem to be promising in case of public services.