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Week-2 | March 2021

NEWSMAKERS

You have to give it to Jagan Mohan Reddy this fortnight. His YSR Congress (YSRCP) Party swept the urban local body elections in the state. Though it was expected that the party would do well the municipal elections but what was surprising was the clean sweep with no other contender being close enough. A total white-wash, many are calling it the ‘Jagan Wash’. YSRCP won in 75 of the 78 municipalities and 11 out of 12 Municipal Corporations (counting in Eluru not taken up due to a High Court Order). TDP managed a slim hope of bagging Tadipatri in Anantpur District and Mydukuru in Kadappa District. But YSCRC can still get its Mayor candidates elected with the help of independent candidate. Jagan Mohan Reddy is looking for a clean sweep.
Andhra Pradesh Municipal Election final results.

 YSRCPTDPJSPBJPCPICPI(M)INCAIMIMIND
Municipal Wards2265349259421186
Vote Share83.46%12.72%0.89%0.37%     

Total Wards-2742 (Elections postponed for 2 wards and counting for Eluru corporation put on hold).

Many will now have to rework their strategies. Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party (JSP) remains a non-starter. BJP has nowhere to go. They have burnt bridges with both TDP and the YSRC – but as they say – in politics and cricket – it is over only when it is over!

POLITICS

Snippets from Kamala Hassan’s Interview by Rajdeep Sardesai during India Today Conclave South

You can see the full interview here- https://fb.watch/4k9EMR1qyR/

Photo Credit: India Today

“The reason for doing Bigg Boss is to finance my party. Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) is short of funds. My party receives funds from all the right sources and hence we are short. Ideally, money shouldn’t matter in elections. That is our motto. It costs a bomb to hire Kamal Haasan for TV and that is why I forayed into television.”

“My legacy of acting is beyond politics. If I lose, it could be the end of a star, but not an actor. There are several films that my fans will remember after me.”

“My remuneration would have amplified if I had accepted black money. I have been paying my taxes regularly for the past 35 years. Hence, I do not have to fear about raids or the Enforcement Directorate.”

“Actors in South Indian films don’t make the amount of money that their counterparts in Bollywood make. But we are catching up.”

“If offered a role of a typical ‘Madrasi’ in a Bollywood film – I will do it if the money is right and I am sure that the producers can pay the amount”

“I am not BJP’s B-Team. For me both DMK and AIDMK are opponents”

Dayanidhi Maran on Kamala Hassan

“It is very evident for the people of Tamil Nadu, we have been watching him. He has not been a superstar like Rajini[kanth], but he has been liked by everybody.”

“He is shamelessly doing his job”

When asked what role he thinks Kamal Hasan is going to play in Tamil Nadu politics, Maran said, “You should ask his bosses. You should ask Amit Shah, ask [Prime Minister] Modi.”

Kamala Hassan has filed his nominations from the Coimbatore South constituency. Elections for Tamil Nadu assemble are to take place on April 6. His party, MNM, will be contesting the assembly elections for the first time. His party had contested the last Lok Sabha elections in 2019 where the party’s vot-share was 3.75%.

Also read: Dakshinpanthi (Ch- 1): Newsmakers, Politics & Travel

Ramesh Jarkiholi, Karnataka Water Resources Minister Resigns on Allegations of Sexual Harassment   

Ramesh Jarkiholi

Ramesh Jarkiholi, the Water Resources Minister in the BS Yediyurappa government resigned two weeks ago on allegations of sexual harassment in a sex-for-job scandal.

The allegations are based on the recovery of a CD purported to show the Minister with a lady and some telephonic conversations. Bengaluru activist Dinesh Kallahalli, who filed the complaint, has alleged that the minister threatened the woman after he was told about the clips. Kallahalli said her family approached him for help fearing for her life.

Later, Dinesh Kallahallli has withdrew his complaint stating that he is hurt on the allegations levelled against him by JD(S) leader HD Kumaraswamy.

On March 10, 2021 the Karnataka Government has set up a seven-member SIT Team headed by ACP Soumendu Mukherjee, Bengaluru City Police. The SIT has since then arrested a few persons.

According to News18, the parents lodged a complaint with Bengaluru Police on March 17 saying their daughter was kidnapped on March 2. They also claimed that the lady in the video was not their daughter and someone used a doppelganger.

According to report published in Indian Today, the state government is mulling to bring in a new law prevent “false and malicious attacks” on public figures.

TELANGANA STATE BUDGET – A SILVER LINING

The Telangana Government is going to present its budget today March 18.

K Chandrasekhar Rao, Chief Minister, Telangana Photo Credit: The News Minute

Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundarajan, who addressed the joint session of the Budget session on Monday, has pegged the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) at ₹9.78-lakh crore for the financial year 2020-21 against ₹9.69-lakh crore in the previous year.

Despite the downturn due to the COVID19 pandemic, the government is likely to present a populist budget. Some say the government may show a positive budget.

TRAVEL & DESTINATIONS

Rushikonda Beach (Vishakhapatnam)

There are not many famous beaches on the East Coast of India frequented by tourists. But one of my favourites is the Rishikonda Beach also known as the Rushikonda. The golden sands beach, situtated on the Bay of Bengal, is about an hours drive north of Vishakhapatnam. Rushikonda is arguably the cleanest of Indian beaches with Andhra Pradesh Tourism Department doing a marvellous job in the upkeep of the area.

There are several adventure sports available in the area, such as Speed Boats, Kayaking, Para gliding, Scuba Diving and Jet Skiing. The beach is also considered to be an ideal place for windsurfers too.

The festival of Holi is celebrated with great enthusiasm at the Rushikonda Beach. On the day the festival the beach waters change colours due the festivities. The people celebrate by splashing colour and water on each other.

Vishakhaptanam is well connected by air and rail to the rest of the country. The AP Tourism Beach Resort is a good place for an overnight stay. There are several guest houses also available.

We leave you with some images of Rushikonda and the surrounding areas.

Photo Credit: Holidify
Photo Credit: Incredible India
Photo Credit: Vizag Tourism (Vishakhapatnam)
Haritha Beach Resort, Rushikonda Photo Credit: Lifeisoutside.com

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Big hullabaloo has been raised by the Indian government and some sections of the Indian media on the incidents of 26 January, 2021 during the tractor parade of the farmers’ movement. Government has used the incidents as an excuse to tighten its noose on the entire movement. However, things are not as polarised as shown by some media. Majority of the people participating in the rally conducted their march as intended peacefully. But there was a small section of the protesting farmers, not part of the 32 Jathebandis involved in negotiations with the government, that broke the first barricades and started to march towards Red Fort.
On the event of the Republic day, the only scenes showcased were that of an unruly mob taking over the capital. This was largely the result of Indian media’s biased reporting and a habit of jumping to the conclusion by painting false narratives. The sacrifices farmers have been making for more than two months were outrightly disregarded. More than 170 famers have lost their lives during this peaceful protest either due to suicide, extreme cold conditions or health reasons. Interestingly, complete disregard of masks and social distancing has not resulted in any death due to Covid.
The protestors faced condemnation for hoisting a Nishan Sahib flag at Red Fort, which is normally put atop Gurudwaras as a spiritual marker of Sikh identity and has deeper philosophical meanings attached with faith. But what needs to be kept in mind is that during the entire course of this event, the tricolor was never disrespected in any way. It was always seen flying at the highest point at Red Fort where it needs to be. Many people use flags to represent an idea/ideology they stand by. The communists have a popular slogan, ‘Lal qile par lal nishan, maang raha hai Hindustan.’ The Rashtriya Swayansewak Sangh is so enamoured with its bhagwa dhwaj that until Bhartiya Janata Party formed a government at the centre they gave priority to their flag over the tricolor. Their hidden agenda has never been disguised when they openly talk of making a Hindu Rashtra out of India with their bhagwa as the national flag. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) has been negotiating for a separate flag and separate Constitution with the government of India. Jammu and Kashmir used to have its own flag until Article 370 was diluted. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had gotten a separate flag for Karnataka approved by his cabinet. So, if somebody hoisted their favourite flag without disturbing the tricolor why is the government, including the President and Prime Minister, harping on disrespect to the national flag? And in any case, how can Red Fort, which incidentally has been handed over to Bharat Dalmia group for Rs. 25 crores for five years in 2018, be a symbol of our democracy. The Parliament, the Supreme Court or the President’s Residence are symbols of democratic republic.
BJP and RSS supporters, masquerading as pro-farm law supporters, have attacked the farmers in police presence at various locations. Journalist Mandeep Punia who reported one such incident was arrested on charge of obstructing police in discharge of their duty and of beating police personnel. Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s prophecy in August 2019 that abrogation of Article 370 and 35A in Jammu and Kashmir would not result in Indianisation of Kashmir but rather Kashmirisation of India has come true with internet ban at protest sites. Water and electricity supplies had been cut off. But brave women from western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana arrived with earthen pitchers of water.
The coverage of mainstream media, unlike during the Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement which was launched in 2011, this time is biased. It reported that farmers were leaving the protest sites after the 26 January incidents, whereas the reality is that only those who specifically came to participate in the Republic Day tractor parade were going back. Because of government’s repression and breaking down of Rakesh Tikait at Ghazipur border the farmers were galvanised. It became a matter of self-respect for them, Since then mega Kisan Mahapanchayats have been held at Muzaffarnagar, Baraut, Mathura, Bijnore, Jind, Shamli and farmers are making a beeline for Delhi border. Tikait who till 26 January was only the leader of farmers from western UP has now become the face of entire farming community of northern India. Farmers are mobilized into a stronger force now.
On the other hand the government is being mean. It tried to get twitter accounts sympathetic to the famers’ movement blocked, registered cases against prominent people who posted messages in support of farmers’ movement, got iron nails embedded on roads to puncture famers’ vehicles, put up concrete, metal and stone boulders as obstruction, diverted trains to make it inconvenient for farmers to reach protest sites. When the government starts treating its own citizens as enemies, it is clear who has an upper hand in the battle. It remains to be seen who’ll win the war.
The government is irked by the international support of Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and Meena Harris, terming it interference in the internal affairs of our country, forgetting that the basic premise behind Citizenship Amendment Act brought by it was that non-Muslims in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan are persecuted minorities and it was actively trying to get the Nepalese Constitution in 2015 amended, going to the extent of imposing an informal economic blockade, which has resulted in an ill feeling in these countries towards India. In any case, domestic violence is not considered the internal affair of a household. Similarly, violation of human rights by any country cannot be overlooked by terming it an internal affair.
BJP leaders from Punjab, Haryana and elsewhere have begun publicly articulating their discomfort at the way their government is handling the movement. Most believe that the Prime Minister is capable of resolving the crisis. Most prominent among them is the Meghalaya Governor, Satyapal Malik, with a socialist background, who has advised the government not to insult the farmers.
With discontent within and without it may be difficult for the BJP government to continue its smooth sailing for very long. The government is arresting farmers under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for having provoked violence on 26 January whereas Deep Sidhu, one of the miscreants, whose proximity to the BJP has been all over the media, is yet to be apprehended. Compare this with the violence which was unleashed on 6 December, 1992 by an unruly Hindutva mob which resulted in razing the Babri mosque and killing of 12 Muslims as their houses were burnt down in Ayodhya. While demolition of Babri mosque invited the problem of terrorism to India, no First Information Report was registered in the case of murdered Muslims even though the P.V. Narasimha Rao government paid financial compensation to the families of the deceased.  
It is ironical that the BJP government has launched a high profile programme to honour the martyrs of Chauri Chaura incident, forgetting that these martyrs were booked by the British government in a similar manner that it is charging the farmers today, even though the scale of violence in Chauri Chaura was much bigger, 22 policemen burnt to death, compared to Delhi incidents.
The role of government in any country is to look after its people. The basic needs of people are not just material but even more a sense of security. The recent history of dissents in India has show that the government rather than providing answers and being more transparent in its functioning dwells into identity politics to change the narrative and infuses a communal propaganda to every protest and voice that disrupts its non-transparent way of functioning. This attack on a person and group identity is leading to a growing sense of insecurity among the people of India and disintegrating our secular spirit while losing faith in democracy. The trust in government is sadly, already lost.


By Dr. Sandeep Pandey, Harleen Sandhu and Rahul Singh Rana
Note: Sandeep Pandey is National Vice President of Socialist Party (India), Harleen Sandhu is a Doctoral student at Louisiana State University and Rahul Singh Rana is a consultant working in the field of business analysis.

By Sandeep Pandey, Simran Kaur and Harleen Sandhu

The Bhartiya Janata Party and its historical ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh have used religion in manipulating the sentiments of the masses to gain political mileage, strengthening its grassroots presence as well as skyrocketing its electoral mandate. A mosque was demolished a few decades ago to mobilize the Hindu votes in the name of building a temple at the same exact spot. The perpetrators walked away with impunity while the police appeared to look the other way when thousands were killed and left homeless in its aftermath. Under this Hindu Nationalist administration, the cow has been accoladed a political significance and used as an instrument to polarize public opinion leading to a series of cold and dreaded mob lynchings across the country. Any intellectual, artist, journalist or even a student, anyone who has dared to question these Hindutva vigilantes through their work and advocacy are either put behind bars or murdered in broad daylight. Anybody holding a differing viewpoint was and continues to be branded anti-national or a Naxalite. Using the national interest narrative, the Indian government has been silencing any form of remonstration and dissent comes at a very high cost in India. Under the shield of this toxic communal politics the government so far got away with a number of unpopular and brazen decisions like making and enabling electoral funding by private corporations opaque and removing any ceiling on donations, demonetization, implementation of Goods and Services Tax, repeal of Articles 370 and 35A from Jammu and Kashmir, passage of Citizenship Amendment Act and instituting National Register of Citizens exercise, totally dampening down the labour laws, diluting Environment Impact Assessment regime, without any significant challenge except on the CAA/NRC where coronavirus came to government’s rescue. This democratic alienation that our government seems to have grown very fond of increases the distance between the people and the decision makers. The government thought that it could also road-roll three laws pertaining to farmers likewise but got a surprise in the form of a rock solid resistance from Punjab and Haryana farmers.

            The Sikh community has been at the forefront of the struggle at all the protest sites surrounding Delhi from all corners, whether in Haryana, Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh. Their religious ethos of langar (free meals), sewa (service), charhdi kala (high spirits) and hakk (right/dignity) have been deeply imbibed and resonate in every space of the ongoing protest. The farmers and their families have been there for almost 2 months in harsh cold conditions but their firm resolution to stand against this tyrannical government doesn’t seem to be slowing down rather seems to be getting stronger with each passing day. The Sikh community has ensured that anybody coming to participate in protests will not face any inconvenience of any sort. The trolleys and tractors are parked in a very organized manner on highways, and they ensure that it does not disrupt the movement of the passing vehicles. The Punjabi youth and women have been playing a very key role in keeping the protest organized such that even despite the large number of protestors that keep joining everyday, it looks like a new village that has sprung up altogether than a protest site. Langar, one of the most unique characteristic of Sikh religion and a hallmark of their faith makes them stand out from the rest of the world. The practice of langar, and community kitchen is the most humanitarian deed there can be perhaps as it thrives on the principles of equality according dignity to all since it symbolizes ‘sharing’ and not charity.

The Sikh community has utilized the positive emotion or energy of their religion to relentlessly support a political cause of farmers’ rights which is not just a matter of economic rights but these laws jeopardizing the dignity of living and livelihood of farmers as well as everyone associated with this sector at the grassroot level. They have the moral strength and zeal to take on the Indian government as they are determined to get the anti-farmer laws repealed and there is no question of retreating back. The ruling dispensation on the other hand has used sophistry, manipulation, misappropriation of narrative, illusion of a false sense of pride in an abstruse idea of nationalism which may not stand them in good stead.

            The seismic waves of protests have to a large extent also eroded the credibility of the government as it was busy trying in every which way it could, to discredit the thrust of the protest and delegitimize it by calling it ‘anti-national’. It has exposed the vulnerability of the ruling alliance that churns out facts that dispel the truth. As the government dithers in taking a decision on the farm laws it is increasingly becoming abundantly clear that it is serving the interests of its corporate sponsors. Graphic posters at the protest site keep depicting how Narendra Modi is controlled by Adani and Ambani and how the Prime Minister at the behest of his capitalist masters further controls the media houses, throttling free speech and dissent in many ways. It is very clear that all three laws in question are aimed at serving the corporate interests in totality. In spite of the best and concerted efforts of the government in trying to question the motive of protestors, its own intent and vision pertaining to the laws is now considered to be dubious carrying multiple designs.

            The Hindutva brigade which is quick to ascribe motives to people who oppose its agenda is at a total loss to even comment on posters like ‘Non-Resident Indians for Farmers,’ ‘We are not terrorists but farmers’ or the active participation of bodies like Khalsa Aid and British Sikh Council in facilitating the protests or the presence of martial Nihang Sikhs who have taken upon themselves to form the first line of defense at the Singhu border. They are there willing to sacrifice themselves at any given point of time for the cause of farmers. Even Muslim farmers from Maler Kotla have set up a langar to offer solidarity. The spirit of service, a unique feature of this protest, has overcome all political propaganda unleashed at the protestors or attempts to divide them by employing various tactics invoking the bogey of communalism, terrorism, foreign hand, etc., but no charges seem to stick. The government, whose morality is hollowed out by corruption, politics of divide and polarization will not be able to face the truth that resides in the hearts of committed protestors. None of the tools employed by it to browbeat its dissenters seem to be working at this time as the protestors have successfully fought back to counter those wishing to taint the movement with cogent analysis of the consequences of the laws.

                Almost two months of dialogue process has not yielded a result because the Ministers engaged in dialogue on behalf of the government are probably not empowered to take a decision on their own. Amit Shah could have taken a decision in consultation with the Prime Minister, but farmers refused to dialogue with him rightly pointing out that farmers’ problem cannot be viewed as a law and order problem alone. Narendra Modi himself will never engage in dialogue as became clear during the 112 days of fatal fast of Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, earlier known as Professor G.D. Agrawal, in 2018 at Haridwar demanding a law for conservation of Ganga. Modi didn’t respond to four letters written to him by Swami Sanand but was quick to send a condolence message after his death. Death of hundred farmers during the movement will not move him if he didn’t care for the life of an eminent saint-scientist-environmentalist on an issue which was apparently close to his hear. Hence the dialogue process is doomed. We can only hope that the struggle of these farmers will triumph soon one day.

(Note: Sandeep Pandey is national vice president of Socialist Party (India), Simran Kaur is 5th year student of B.A.-LLB (Hons.) at University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh and Harleen Sandhu is a Doctoral student at Louisiana State University.)

Ever since Indian Railways (IR) announced that bids were being called for privatization, i.e., operation of certain trains by private operators, there is a strong narrative that this would hit the common man because of increase in fares. Let me start by allaying these fears. This discourse has arisen either out of lack of information or merely as a red herring. And this not because of a clear intention but because the exercise of privatization would succeed only in segments where you have travelers willing to pay more in return for value and therefore the common lower class travellers need not have any fear; privatization of trains with a large number of lower class coaches is not going to succeed. Once a cluster/route is privatized, as it seems, IR would get adequate revenue, perhaps more than what it gets now. So the question is not whether IR would lose passengers and revenue but whether good number of investors would be attracted to the business. One aspect is clear, no concessionaire could possibly make money from the lower class travelers. A worrying aspect is whether a concessionaire would be able to charge the upper end traveler enough to make the business fruitful, particularly as there would be value only in improved services only and not in travel time and punctuality.

Intended or unintended, the common passenger is not going to be hit

After I conducted a couple of panel discussions with people knowledgeable in the field, many worthies told me that all that was an attempt to give the dog a bad name and hang it. That all the staus-quoists had grouped together to derail a game changer conceived by the ministry.

Far from it. I start with a clear abnegation. A caveat that in my personal view, I am in favour of privatization of IR trains, per se. In today’s world, privatization cannot be a taboo. Government is ill-equipped and usually indisposed to handle amenities and services efficiently and running of trains entails a fair share of this, like booking of tickets and reservation, dynamic pricing, cleanliness in trains, catering, Infotainment and so on. At the same time, since passenger services are subsidized in some form or the other, unlike freight services, it is difficult to have private concessionaire bring in train technology.

Added to that is the age-old dichotomy of running a commercial enterprise while meeting a stupendous level of social commitment, albeit misplaced at time in its various forms. An identity crisis between the so called facilitator of world-class travel on one hand and provider of an inexpensive mode of travel to our teeming millions and helper to expand the network to far-flung corners of the country on the other. Although you cannot run an oxymoronic model of business without profit, it is pretty inconceivable that these social commitments can and should be abandoned. Willy-nilly, therefore, there has to be a mix of government and private participation to improve train travel experience while enduring the pressures of inexpensive travel demand and continuing with its social and strategic outreach.

So, I welcome the move as such. It should improve services, it would relieve IR (Indian Railways) of a part of its investments in new trains, albeit of the existing design and if privatization is done without any loss of revenue to IR, or even a small gain in revenue, it would be good for the health of Indian Railways. Why? Because, no surprises there, when it comes to services like ticketing and on-board services, IR is not efficient as it is saddled with typical government shackles. We have an army of very highly paid staff or bloated inefficient contracts managing all this today whereas serious concessionaires can provide these services more efficiently at a lower cost. 

But there are a lot of misgivings about the model proposed as well as the timing of the project. I can understand that the timing of the project is not good as our economy struggles in the prevailing Covd-19 situation and may continue to struggle in its aftermath. But considering that the proposal was mooted much before Covid-19 struck, this is as good a time as another.

It is also relevant that, in a recent announcement, IR has clarified that while the bidding process is on, actual launch of these trains may be done only in early 2024. The announcement also talks of running 160 km/h trains and that infrastructure would be ready for private trains by early 2024 but I see it as mere posturing as nothing significant can be added to the infrastructure by that time except perhaps commissioning of the Dedicated Freight Corridors. The major trunk routes of Indian Railways, by their own admission in the Project Information Memorandum, are saturated, operating at near full capacity and it would be relieved only with the commissioning of DFCs, which are nowhere near completion and that these DFCs would relieve only the Delhi-Kolkata and Delhi-Mumbai sectors. Saturation of routes is a dampener and therefore the objective of 95% punctuality on privatized trains is too far-fetched. The investors would have to take the less costly option of purchasing existing type of trains. The entire running of trains would be in hands of IR and not the concessionaires, even if they have their own certified drivers and guards as the punctuality of trains seldom suffer due to the train running crew; it is mostly due to some capacity or infrastructural problem. So there would be no positive impact on running time and punctuality. As for capacities, since these are new trains, the intention is to add capacities but the questions would remain about IR’s ability to handle new trains in the existing system seamlessly. Since IR does keep introducing new trains, this can be done but there would definitely be some more strain on an already saturated system

The disastrous experience of British Rail in privatization is being quoted frequently as a forewarning. But I would use that only as a learning exercise and not a deterrent. There have been many successful experiences too of corporatization followed by privatization as in Germany and Japan. One of the safeguards would be to avert emergence of private monopolies as while privatization may be good, a private monopoly is worse than a public monopoly.

Coming to the bidding process itself, let us not forget that this is a first-time attempt by IR. It cannot really hope to get ahead in the game by writing a document sitting in a cocoon as if private investors are drooling all over at the prospect of running trains. I really do not know how the RFQ documents were prepared but it does not seem to have been done after wide consultation. It is all very well to say that the concerns would be addressed in pre-bid meetings but let us not forget that the initial document sets the pitch. So while the bidding process appears to be fine, the basic bid document does not seem to be investor-friendly at this stage.

Why do I keep saying that the investors would choose the less costly option of purchasing existing type of trains? The investment in a 16 coach AC II train, or a mix of AC II and III, or other variations of AC coaches, the cash cow for IR today except the AC 1, without any technological improvement, with one locomotive, on Power Car, Pantry/SLR etc. would be approx. Rs 55 crores. Although maintenance pit and shed would be made available by IR on chargeable basis, the concessionaire would need to some to make investments pertaining to maintenance facilities also so the total investment would be more in the range of Rs 60 crores. With an earning of 1000 km per day, the revenue would be in the range of Rs 10.5 lakhs per day with 10% hike in fare. 

In the pre-bid clarifications, provisionally, the indicative access charge has been assessed as Rs.512.31 per train km for a 16 coach train for 2019-20 and it works out Rs 5.12 lakhs per day. (Indexation of the charges over the concession period shall be as pre-specified in the concession agreement; the charge will be proportionately increased for trains of longer length and the final access charge will be specified in the draft concession agreement). With committed share in gross revenue to IR, service man power and O&M costs, energy cost to be paid to IR, overheads and insurance, very little head room would be left for service of debt and return on equity, let alone profit. While debt would be difficult to raise, there may not be many to roll up with large equity. So while this makes any investment in modern trains very unattractive, the key even for deploying existing type of trains lies in how the access charges are brought down to a realistic level.

Then there is this business of twelve clusters. Every cluster has some routes with promise of good patronization and some without it. Why burden the investors with social obligations of IR? For economies of scale, you would like to have bigger clusters. On the other hand, we should not eat more than we can chew at this stage of initial attempt of a watershed change in train operation. It is a matter of opinion but I would have liked the clusters to be so chosen that the concessionaire would not require to deal with multiple train formations; this would help in obviating any need to regroup coaches at terminals, which otherwise could be a killer in train operations. In any case, matching rakes in diverse locations in links and also matching them with locomotive links is going to be quite a jigsaw puzzle for a concessionaire as even IR with all its massive resources is still unable to maximize utilization through optimum links.

The contract period of 35 years, without any flexibility, also appears to be too long and investors would not be willing to get tied to a dud contract for this long. The exit clause, on the other hand, may remain open to misuse by the investors. A more realistic time period would be in the range of 15 years with a fair exit clause.

At the same time, there are many votaries of train sets, not because I created the first one in India, but because train sets are inherently far more efficient and friendly to train operation and passenger amenities as compared to conventional locomotive-hauled trains; this has been proven by Train 18/Vande Bharat express already on IR. So I would have liked to throw in a mega cluster of say, Delhi-Bhopal-Jaipur-Ahmedabad-Mumbai routes to be operated with train sets such that some investments also start in train sets for a truly world-class travel experience.

At least one cluster must encourage deployment of train set

There is another drawback that I see in the model. The concessionaire would quote for a share in the Gross Revenue at RFP stage, with Gross Revenue comprising amount accruing from passengers or any third party, including ticket, preferred seat, baggage and parcel tariffs, amount from on-board services like catering, bed roll, Infotainment and revenue from advertising, branding and naming rights etc. There is nothing left for the concessionaire to innovate and earn. The share in gross revenue perhaps arises from the fear of manipulation in Profit & Loss Accounting by a concessionaire but in today’s world such fears should not dictate regression to an unworkable provision. Let us look at the model in totality. Having invested hugely in rolling stock, a concessionaire would be dependent on IR essentially for the entire operational infrastructure like track, OHE, signaling, stations and operating crew as well as maintenance infrastructure and therefore fixed costs would need to be met ahead of any cash flows thereby rendering huge imbalance between the risk and the reward.

Private freight trains, mainly Container and some Automobile-stock trains, have been in operation on IR for more than a decade. It started with a large number of operators but today only a handful remain viable. The experience of this sector must be built into this new effort to enhance the chances of its success.

The extent of liabilities and penalties remain a gray area and they have to be so designed that they do not scare away investors. Accidents occur mainly due to a weakness in infrastructure or human failure on which the concessionaire would have no control. In a scenario where investments would not be easy to mobilize, mitigation of risks is even more important. Some concerns have been raised by impact on integrity and safety of railway assets when used by concessionaires but I do not foresee any problem in this utilization. On the other hand, since operation of passenger trains is a different ball game from safety standpoint, certain safeguards would definitely need to be put in the contract. But I am sure that this issue can be suitably addressed by IR.

The stillborn proposal to appoint an independent regulator has to be revived. With multiple interfaces and complex contracts of accessing infrastructure and revenues, the project cannot take off without an independent regulator in place.

The data of Tejas train run by IRCTC is not available in a transparent manner so it is difficult to comment on. It is, however, known that after the novelty of smart hostesses and add-on services wore off, the patronage had started going down before the Covid pandemic stopped all passenger train operation. The data should indeed be shared with all bidders to help them make a competent offer.

No rail system in the world has such heavy cross-subsidization of passenger services by freight earnings. IR earns 55 paise for every rupee spent on passenger services. No such luxury would be available to concessionaires. We must look at all these experiences and then draw a model more suited for India. I doubt if this has been done yet. There are rail travel models which have given tough competition to air, for example, Frankfurt to Köln and Madrid to Barcelona, with such travel time that flights on these routes almost disappeared. This gives the operator, be it private or state-run a good leeway to charge handsome fares and sustain itself comfortably. Privatization of trains is a right step towards improving efficiencies in train-running but this right step would better be a baby step. It has unfortunately, or perhaps unwittingly, been announced by IR itself as a panacea; something that would bring in a quantum jump in technology, punctuality and services and therefore the sights have been set at an unattainable level. It appears today that IR would look after it leaps. The term world-class travel experience is being bandied about freely whereas the reality is that private trains may bring in only improved on-board and support services. But there is enough time as prospective bidders ready themselves. It is time that the issue be approached afresh in a pragmatic way such that it promises to be a win-win for IR, the prospective concessionnaires and the travelling public.