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Rahul’s train of thought shouldn’t affect private sector entry

Rahul’s train of thought shouldn’t affect private sector entry

All politicians are socialists in India but some are more socialist than others. Those in the Opposition belong to the second category. Typically, they oppose everything that government does, but they oppose anything pro-market more than they oppose anything else. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s criticism of the Narendra Modi government’s proposal to let private companies run some trains is symptomatic of this political malaise.

The Ministry of Railways has invited request for qualifications or RFQs for private participation for operation of passenger train services over 109 routes through introduction of 151 modern trains, an official press release said. Every train will have a minimum of 16 coaches.

“The project would entail private sector investment of about Rs 30,000 crore. This is the first initiative of private investment for running passenger trains over Indian Railways network,” the release said.

A majority of trains will be manufactured in India, it said, adding that the private entity shall be responsible for financing, procuring, operation and maintenance of the trains. “Trains shall be designed for a maximum speed of 160 kmph. There would be a substantial reduction in journey time. The running time taken by a train shall be comparable to or faster than the fastest train of Indian Railways operating in the respective route.”

By any reckoning, this is a good step. This will improve the infrastructure without costing the government anything. Further, it will help passengers, as they will get more choice and better service. Demand is huge, as evident from the long waiting lists of trains. This is a win-win-win proposition—for the government, private parties, and passengers.

But anything economically sensible is politically unacceptable. “The Railways are the lifeline for the poor and the government is taking it away from them. Take away what you can. But do remember, the people will give a befitting response to this,” Gandhi tweeted in Hindi.

But, Mr. Gandhi, how is the government taking Railways away from the poor? Would they not be allowed to board a private train? Has any company—Indian or multinational, private or public sector—ever barred a section of society from using the goods and services it sells?

Gandhi should get real. There are thousands of goods and services every person, rich or poor, needs—from soaps and cycles to the skills of plumbers and electricians. Most of these needs are met by private persons and companies. The same will happen with private trains.

The government run by his own party during 2004-14 recognized this reality. This was the reason that it favored private sector participation in Railways. Economic Survey 2011-12 said, “In order to attract private capital for accelerated construction of fixed rail infrastructure, the Ministry of Railways has formulated PPP [public-private partnership] investment models for its existing shelf of projects and new projects. The Ministry is in the process of finalizing a comprehensive draft policy containing six models for specific categories of projects.”

Economic Survey 2012-13 also emphasized upon the “PPP mode” for the setting up of cold storage and temperature-controlled perishable cargo centres.

What was good under the Congress-led government can’t be bad under a regime under the Bharatiya Janata Party. Petty politicking, socialist claptrap, and sanctimonious gibberish shouldn’t be allowed to hurt the good decision of private trains..