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The Sad story of the Indian Railways

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The Indian railways’ network is one of the largest in the world and the second largest in Asia, next only to China. To put things into perspective, India is the seventh largest country in the world, a third the physical size of its neighbour, China. The Indian Railways is entirely owned by the Government of India and is operated by the Ministry of Railways. It operates several hundred Express,

Superfast & Passenger trains on a daily basis. It also has the responsibility of operating a number of local and urban trains. Over 22 million people utilize the Indian Railways every-day to commute to their destinations. The Indian Railways network is a mix & Mash of Broad, meter and narrow gauges. At the same time, diesel engines ply alongside electric engines all the while steam powered engines are still being phased out. The world’s eighth largest employer, over 1.4 million Indians get their paychecks from the Indian Railways, which employs more personnel than the Indian Army. In spite of corruption, nepotism, red-tape bureaucracy and political wrangling, the Indian Railways is the link that joins the entire nation. It is the very chain that binds us as a nation, a glue that keeps us together and a welcome sight for the sore eyes of the millions of the improvised folks who have gone to distant places to earn a two-time meal. The railway in India evokes the warm memories of home. All commuters of the Indian Railways are witness to the very thought of unity in diversity, the good old virtues of sharing and caring, the idea of a healthy debate, the nostalgia of cold air hitting the face and the cacophony of the million myriad small worlds that home in a gigantic canvas of our nation. The railways in India evoke the essence of being an Indian.

However, in the recent past, the Indian Railways has started hogging in the news for some very serious accidents. Train derailments, a rarity in the past has become commonplace. Every day, some or the other train is found to derailed or overturned, causing a great loss of time, revenue and sometimes, human lives too. A Railway Minister offered his resignation on successive fatal train derailments. His resignation was rejected but he was transferred to another Ministry in the recent Ministry shuffles. While official investigations are ongoing, sections in the media and common populace have placed the blame on a plethora of factors ranging from a lack of communication between various stakeholders, worn out tracks to even hooligans cutting tracks to instil terror. Not only train derailments, the Indian Railways is plagued by various issues ranging from quality control in food provided on board its trains, the overcharging for standard products by attendant staff to whole scale server crashes while ticket booking. It is often said that booking a Tatkal ticket( an emergency ticket booked in the 24 hours before the train’s departure) has become the 3rd most difficult thing to do in India, the first two obviously being marrying your love and getting yourself selected in the prestigious 3Is (IIT-IIM-IAS).

There is a lot of noise being generated that railways is over-charging or even outright, fleecing its customers. Prima facie, it appears to be the case. Tatkal tickets routinely charge 2-4 times the amount of the conventional fare and dynamic pricing has made some train tickets as expensive as flight tickets. But who is to blame for this? Why are the Railways forced to charge absurd rates for even small routes? Why is there not a rational pricing mechanism in place for the railways?

The blame rests squarely upon successive governments and railway ministers who used the Indian railways as a vote fetching tool and nothing more. Projects and trains were always sanctioned to the home states and districts of the executive and factories set up in constituencies of the crème-la-crème of the administration to sway public opinion, without any consideration being given to profitability or revenue rationalization. The Rail Coach Factories sanctioned at Lalganj in Uttar Pradesh and in Bihar are a testament to this politicking.  Successive governments withheld or withdrew increasing passenger rates (due to public outcry and cement their pro-poor positioning) and increased freight rates (why cares about Industries anyway?). In a way, this was justified. The Indian Railways is a government undertaking meant for the benefit of the Indian Citizens. The passenger fares had to remain low and sustainable so that entire India could rely on the railways for transport. But in a demonstration of very poor political economics, successive governments did not hike the railway passenger fares even when circumstances could have dictated otherwise. In one famous incident, a railway minister was sacked by his party chief who was in a coalition with the ruling dispensation for daring to effect a modest hike in the passenger fares. Yes, even today Indian Railways charges pennies for distances and on most routes, its conventional fares are a fraction of the Roadways and the railways. For examples, on the Lucknow-Delhi route, for the roadways, the fares vary from Rs 550/- (for a general purpose bus) to Rs 1450/- (Applicable for Scania like High-end buses). The conventional railway fare is Rs 185/- (for a second seater- akin to a General purpose bus), Rs 350/- (for a sleeper’s berth where you can comfortably sleep and stretch your legs) to Rs 1300/- (for a cozy 2nd AC coach seat) for the same 640 km stretch. Over and above this, Railways also provides concessions for children and senior citizens. A flight ticket on the same stretch costs around Rs. 1500/- and much more, depending on the demand and the date. Even a Tatkal ticket for the same route costs in the neighbourhood of Rs 2000/- which is comparatively well-priced if you compare the comfort and speed of the railway service. Furthermore, the railways lose a substantial sum on every conventional fare ticket booked. This, along with the massive ticket-less travelling and corruption, forces the Indian Railways to ask for subsidies and dole-outs from the Indian exchequer. Hence, as evident from the above numbers, there is an urgent need to increase the passenger fares or the railways has to come up with alternative ways to increase revenue. Tatkal tickets, dynamic pricing, increasing revenue from advertising are some of the ways the railways can improve the cash flow.

The freight operations, once the cash cow, of the Indian Railways, has now been sucked dry and freight rates, which were earlier competitive with the road transport is now reeling under multiple blows of successive hikes and has been highly uncompetitive. In the fiscal year 2015-2016, Indian Railways posted the lowest revenue growth since 2010-11. The Revenue growth in 2015-16 was just 4.6%, much lower than the 10-19% growth the national carrier registered in the previous four fiscal years and hoped to replicate. These facts will be a dampener for hopes that the railways will buttress the government’s capital expenditure plans and its future expansion plans.

The freight volumes are falling.  This is a major cause of concern as the railways generate three-fifths of its revenues from freight. This is undermining revenue growth. The weak revenue trends reflect the subdued economic activity. Cement, Coal and container traffic, in particular, fell.  The slump in revenue growth is also partly due to the uncompetitive position and impractical mess the railways has got itself into. Successive tariff hikes (courtesy, the earlier budgets) and the rapid & sustained fall in diesel prices has helped the roadways to become competitive, especially in the lucrative short-haul freight traffic. Experts point out that Rail-road freight tariff variation has reached a tipping point now as the fall in diesel prices and improvement in road infrastructure has made rail freight transportation a far less attractive proposition.

While we may find it very convenient to vent out our ire on the Railways for what we believe is the arbitrariness of the pricing mechanisms but the truth remains, the Indian Railways is under-funded, over-staffed and highly essential for our country. Let us not forget that for every Tatkal ticket which we claim is over-priced, many more underpriced tickets are also sold and several more, travel without a ticket, causing a loss of revenue and a dent in the finances of the Indian exchequer. This is the sad story of the often-abused Indian Railways.

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South Asia

Pakistan PM’s Saudi affair likely to backfire

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Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia flourished during the previous government headed by Nawaz Sharif, primarily due to his personal business interests in the Kingdom and friendly association with members of the Saudi royal family. Despite the criticism at home, Sharif never missed an opportunity to eulogize the Saudi rulers and support their wrongs.

During Sharif’s tenure as Prime Minister, while Pakistan’s ‘love affair’ with Riyadh blossomed, relations with Tehran plummeted. When the ambitious gas pipeline project was shelved by the Sharif government in 2015 under the Saudi pressure, some experts couldn’t resist the temptation of reading the obituary of Iran-Pakistan friendship. It seemed game over.

But the political transition in Islamabad this year rekindled hopes of a new foreign policy taking shape in Islamabad under the populist premier Imran Khan.

In his victory speech, Khan made it categorically clear that he would like to strengthen ties with allies in the Middle East, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. During his first meeting with the Iranian envoy to Islamabad, Khan reiterated his desire to bolster ties with Tehran and revive important projects that had been put on the backburner by the previous political dispensation, including the gas pipeline.

Experts termed it a “significant shift” in Pakistan’s foreign policy as his predecessor was seen overtly inclined towards stronger Pakistan-Saudi relations than Pakistan-Iran relations. Writing in The New Arab, Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, a fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, said with the exit of Nawaz Sharif, Saudi Arabia had lost a reliable ally who never concealed his affection for the Gulf states in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular “for both personal and strategic reasons.”

It was widely believed that Khan’s approach will be different from Sharif and he will not yield to covert pressures from Washington or Riyadh. At least that is what appeared.
When Khan embarked on his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, keeping alive the tradition set by his predecessors, he sought to underscore that Riyadh will remain a priority for Pakistan’s foreign policy. Pertinently, it was President Hasan Rouhani of Iran, not King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who first extended an invitation to him.

But the faith in his leadership or his vision for ‘Naya Pakistan’ (new Pakistan) was not yet dented. The massive army of his followers on Twitter ensured that the public opinion, or at least the opinion of netizens, was firmly in favor of his leadership and policies.

As the country’s fiscal deficit inflated to 6.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the 2017-2018 financial year, Khan panicked. He boarded the plane to Riyadh again, this time to seek funds. To woo the Saudi rulers, Khan said Riyadh had “always stood with Pakistan in difficult times and the Pakistani government and its people highly acknowledge it.”
Speculation had been put to rest. Khan was walking in the footsteps of his predecessor.

Following his second visit to Riyadh, Saudi regime announced $6 billion in financial support to Islamabad. It corresponded with the international outrage over the cold-blooded murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Even as many world leaders boycotted a Saudi investment conference, the so-called ‘Davos in the desert’, over Khashoggi’s death, Khan attended the event.

On asked why he attended the conference when many other world leaders had turned down the invitation, Khan said Pakistan was “desperate” for Saudi loans to shore up the flailing economy.

“Unless we get loans from friendly countries or the IMF, we actually won’t have in another two or three months enough foreign exchange to service our debts or to pay for our imports. So we’re desperate at the moment,” he was quoted saying by the Middle East Eye.

Khan conceded that his immediate foreign policy priority was maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia despite unprecedented outrage over Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi officials or the outcry over Saudi’s horrendous war crimes in Yemen.

Pakistan, which had previously maintained a neutral stance on Yemen war, might now be forced to support the Saudi onslaught there, some observers fear. If Khan can ignore a reprehensible crime like the killing of Khashoggi because of Saudi petrodollars, it can be expected that he will support the Saudi war crimes in Yemen also, although he has so far resisted doing that.

While Khan has adopted a strong and unwavering stance against the US, he seems to have succumbed to the temptation of being subservient to the Saudi Kingdom, for funds. That is where he risks losing the goodwill he has earned back in Pakistan and in the international community.

At a time when the world is saying ‘no’ to Saudi Arabia, Khan is part of a tiny minority that is going against the tide. This approach will only isolate Pakistan and it has isolated Riyadh and Washington.

Being subservient to Saudi interests also means that Khan will be forced to toe his predecessor’s line on Iran. If that happens, Islamabad will again be forced to shelve the gas pipeline project, which is being described as critical to Pakistan’s energy requirements.

Khan is walking a tightrope. Wisdom lies in taking informed decisions in the best interests of Pakistan keeping in view long-term goals. In the cricketing terminology, the cricketer-turned-prime minister could do well by playing the forward defensive shot rather than the mistimed stroke in the air.

First published in our partner MNA

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Pakistan a peace loving nation

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Muslims when meeting each other greet “Peace be upon you”. Islam is the religion of Peace and Love, Islamophobia is the creation of a few minds only. There is no doubt that there exists few criminals in every society, every religion, and every country, but such exceptions, may not be used to blame the whole nation, religion or country. Since its independence Pakistan has been promoting peace and stability around the world. Pakistan’s Peace-keeping missions have been playing important roles around the world to maintain peace in troubled areas. We are major contributor to Peace-Keeping Force and have been part of almost all of UN Peace-Missions, during the history of 7 decades. Pakistan is supportive of any efforts by any nation towards promotion or maintenance of peace.

Recently, UNGA’s Disarmament Committee adopted Pakistan’s resolutions with an overwhelming support, in New York on 9th November 2018. Three resolutions proposed by Pakistan were adopted by the UN General Assembly’s First Committee with an overwhelming support. The whole world supported Pakistan’s resolution while India was the only country to oppose them.

In fact, the resolutions highlight the importance of regional approaches to disarmament, which complement global disarmament efforts and stress the need to promote confidence building measures for enhancing regional and international peace and security. The resolution on conventional arms control was adopted by a large majority of 179 countries. India was the sole country to vote against the resolution.

Earlier, a big victory for Pakistan came, on November 1stwhen the Committee also adopted Pakistan’s resolution on assuring non-nuclear weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons by 122 votes. The First Committee of the UN General Assembly which meets annually deals with disarmament, global challenges, and threats to peace that affect the international community and is mandated to seek solutions to global security challenges by considering all disarmament and international security matters within the scope of the UN Charter. Pakistan’s role in disarmament was admired and non-proliferation of uranium. We strongly condemn biological and chemical weapons and strictly adhere to UN decisions.

Pakistan is a responsible country and always exploring the opportunities of peace. Pakistan has always initiated the peace process with India and sincerely tried best to resolve all issues with India, including Jammu and Kashmir, by a peaceful dialogue. Pakistan respects UN, Respect UN mandate, Respect UN Charter, and wants others to do the same. It believes in diplomacy, and there is precedence that some of the more complicated issues around the world, has been resolved by diplomacy, then why not Pakistan-India issues be resolved by dialogue too.

We support the supremacy of UN and all nations must respect the UN. We always stand with the oppressed and raise voice for the victims. Our struggle for justice and righteousness is always admired. We keep on struggling for global peace and be part of any peace process around the world.

The Indian opposition to Pakistani resolution and persistent refusal to leave Kashmir has exposed the true Indian face. The recent International Amnesty report on Human Right violation in Kashmir was a big blow to India. Indian atrocities against its own minorities and lower caste Hindus is condemned widely. Indian opposition to the UN resolution on Palestine is also an example of India’s international position.

It is time that serious notice is taken by the UN, International Community and all conscious individuals to stand up for International Peace, Justice and Human Rights.  We all should keep on struggling for a better world for our next generation. We should be united for “Peace, Stability and Prosperity” for humanity globally.

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The Making of Modern Maldives: A Look at Maumoon Gayoom

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Authors: Srimal Fernando and Pooja Singh

Former Maldivian President Maumoon Gayoom occupies an important place in Maldivian political history largely because he guided this equatorial island nation to unprecedented levels of economic growth and also through tough times when democracy was challenged. Gayoom has a national as well as international reputation that made his name familiar to the rest of the South Asian countries. It was after his return from Nigeria’s Ahmadu Bello University as a lecturer, Gayoom commenced his political journey as a close aid of prime minister Ahmed Zaki in mid-70’s and later as a cabinet minister under Ibrahim Nasir. Gayoom’s leadership embarked on a more reformist approach in the first two terms during his presidency. He was able to take credit for the rise of the tourism sector and an increase in the fish productivity. In Male, as well as in the rest of the Maldivian islands, building of small fisheries harbors were accelerated under the rapid development programs initiated under his presidency. When one looks at the Maldivian foreign policy, Maumoon was credited as one of the key founders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985. Hence, he raised global awareness on climate change on the international arena. In this context, especially the awareness on small island nations facing rise in sea water levels which affects the livelihood of the islanders was a key theme which brought international attention. On the development side, the Hulhulemale reclamation project and the upgrading of roads and other infrastructure initiatives that he implemented are highly credited for by the Maldivians. In fact, the people’s president who visits the islands regularly was named as “A Man for All Islands” by the famous author in his book about Gayoom’s biography.

Early in his administration, former president introduced socio-economic experiments in reawakening the islands. His administration accelerated the economic growth in the twenty Atolls from Northern Haa Atoll to Southern Seenu Atoll instilling a degree of optimism and enthusiasm among the Maldivians. Yet another economic achievement in the tourism sector was the increase of luxury resorts from two in 1978 to hundred by 2008. Gayoom’s career is most relevant due to his performance and for changing the country’s political system to a multi-party democratic system where the power is vested on the citizens.

Another milestone during his tenure was to expand the average income of Maldivians from US$ 377 in 1978 to US$3,654 in 2008. However, towards the end of his presidency, the first signs of irreconcilable difficulties with the Maldivian opposition led by Mohamed Nasheed, the leader of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) started emerging in 2000. The Maldivian pro-democracy movement started in Male in 2003 and then moved to other Islands. As a result, Maldives adopted a multi-party political system and in 2008. In the same year the presidential campaign came to a climax where in the second phase of the presidential elections, the confident president had felt a constant sense of uncertainty since most of the opposition presidential candidates supported Mohamed Nasheed, the leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party. Gayoom lost the election and Nasheed the opposition leader assumed presidency.  The courageous former president Gayoom transferred the presidential powers to the newly elected president smoothly.

In fact, the reformist former president Gayoom formed the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party and later, he was one of the key founders of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) where his half-brother, Yameen Abdul Gayoom shared powers within the party. Hence, Qasim Ibrahim, a former finance minister under Nasheed’s government and also close confidant of president Gayoom led the Jumhooree Party (JP) which combined with PPM in 2013 presidential elections.

Unfortunately, in 2012 the overthrow of president Nasheed one of New Delhi’s closest allies in South Asia shocked the diplomatic circles on both sides of Asia as well as in the west. It took more than five years for Gayoom’s PPM party under the presidency of Yameen to return to power. However, due to widespread corruption and authoritative rules under Yameen’s presidency, many of the opposition party members such as former Maldivian president Nasheed, Jumhooree Party leader Qasim Ibrahim and many other political leaders who opposed the undemocratic rule were prisoned through unlawful means.

During the darkest period of the Maldivian politics from 2017 to September 2018, the lone voice of the public opposition belonged to a few opposition leaders such as, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih cannot be forgotten. In the same period, former president Gayoom, Nasheed and several opposition members created a united opposition to unseat president Yameen and his majority party rule through democratic non-violent means. One of the major reasons for this change by Gayoom in Yameen’s leadership was the widespread corruption and the authoritative rule. Finally, president Yameen prisoned former president Gayoom and his son, Faris Maumoon. This was one of the main reasons where large number of Gayoom supporters broke away from PPM led by president Yameen. This reason influenced the 23rd September 2018 presidential elections where opposition common candidate Ibrahim Solih saw a massive victory margin against president Yameen.

One could argue that, Gayoom, the president who guided Maldives to economic prosperity was the same charismatic leader who guided the South Asian Island nation towards democratic maturity. Maumoon Gayoom has been the most unpredictable political influencer in the modern political making of Maldives.

*Pooja Singh, a scholar of Masters in Diplomacy, Law, Business at Jindal School of International Affairs, India.

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