Do You Trust Them To Run Your Airports ?(Pix: BBC/AFP)
A few years ago, I travelled to Ratnagiri, around 500 km south of Bombay on the western coast. Until a decade ago, Ratnagiri could only be reached by road. Now, there is a railway line. Its called the Konkan Railway and connects Bombay and Mangalore in Karnataka via Goa, hugging the coastline all the way.
So, we were off on a Konkan Railway train with blue coloured coaches. This one was headed to Goa. It departed from the venerable VT station. The train runs on the old Central Railway tracks uptil Thane (one of the first railway lines in the world in 1853)turns west towards Panvel and then south. I was actually a guest of the Konkan Railway. The objective was to visit Ratnagiri station and its surroundings to understand how this railway system was managed.
The 741-km Konkan Railway is a post-Independence engineering marvel. It boasts 2,000 bridges and 92 tunnels and represents one of the most arduous infrastructure efforts ever undertaken. To my mind, there is nothing that free India has built that comes even close (Like always, I would love to be corrected).
We arrived early in the morning and were taken to a railway retiring room (for Class I officers or some such) near the railway station. Two assistant engineers were to be our minders for the day. One was young, one older, maybe in his early forties. Both had been with the railways since they began working and were deputed to the KR project (set up for the first time as an autonomous corporation) since its inception in 1990.
Simple But Impressive Folks
Right from the beginning and through the day, I was impressed with these two gentlemen. They were simple folks, in a very Government employee sort of way. But their dedication to the project and their bond with their organisation was staggering. And it came through in every other sentence. They spoke lovingly of the years spent in blasting through the tunnels, the number of nights spent away from their homes, the terror when sudden landslides would erupt.
"By the way, have you eaten," asked the senior engineer as we were leaving for the station. "Yes," I said. "Hope you have had a good meal. In the Railways, the only good meal is the one you have before you leave the house. You never know when the next one will come," he said. Then he laughed, "Of course, we are no longer in construction phase so its a little better," he added.
I met many more engineers like them through the day. I heard of battles against nature and bureacuracy. I heard of debates on how best to use information technology to manage the front end and the back end. So, as to ensure as many trains ran smoothly on a single line. On challenges of giving passengers a better experience. Mind you, for all this, KR does not have a very good safety record. And there are aspects of its functioning which can still do better.
Dedication And Pride
Yet, if someone told me that KR should be privatised, I would perhaps join its employees in picketing outside Laloo Prasad Yadav's offices or wherever. For the simple reason that private or public, you cannot get a more dedicated workforce than this. You cannot ask for a team that cares more about its organisation and its service. And there is no way you can generate or replicate the sheer pride that these employees have in their organisation.
Usually, when you have all these ingredients you have a great organisation and a profitable one. Or its a public utility in which case no private guy would want to touch it anyway. Which is the simple moral of this story here. All government organisations are not candidates for privatisation. At least not right now.
You may have a different view of Konkan Railway than me. That's imminently feasible. But you will agree that there will be similar examples in other government-owned organisations. Where people work with dignity and pride. Where they care about their job and the consumers of their product or services.
Take the case of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). It operates in the very Indian airports the airport workers held held hostage for three days (the strike was called off Saturday afternoon) . Many people believe that security at airports should be handled by private agencies. That's been the case in the US as well.
I disagree. If you ask me, the CISF is an example of how you can have world class security procedures and service levels right here, in the midst of all the filth the airport workers generated, or stubbornly refused to clean up. If anything, we should export CISF's skills and services to other countries, to learn and adopt. For some payment obviously.
Asking Airport Workers To Stuff It
There are many more examples. I am sure visitors to this page can come with several. They would agree that no one would want to privatise because its the coolest thing to do. Not in India at least. But when an agency renders the most abominable levels of service, is utterly indifferent to the people it is supposed to serve and then wants to perpetuate its rule and thus, everyone's misery indefinitely, then its time to heave-ho.
Konkan Railway was initially run by E. Sreedharan, the same man who built the Delhi Metro in record time. He was succeeded by B Jayaram, another extremely dynamic CEO who pursued the Sky Bus project relentlessly. He also invented the Raksha Kavach or anti collision device which is now being fitted in trains across the country. Jayaram retired recently but his legacy continues. Like his predecessor.
The solution to the airport problem or a government problem is thus not to privatise governments (as one blogger sarcastically commented !). The solution is that elected governments should take decisions which are good for the larger public. That's you and me. This government took a sound step in telling the airport workers to stuff it. Now, if only it demonstrated similar will in tackling the plethora of urban and other infrastructure problems that plague India.