Ideas Ministry India
The New Ministry of Ideas India.
Imagine this: You are headed with your family to the New Delhi railway station, reports Economic Times. En route you receive a text intimating you that your train to Varanasi will leave in an hour. Before that the Indian Railways (IR), clearly in no mood to ignore an opportunity for revenue generation, has slipped in a sponsored message. It’s short and sweet, so you don’t mind the intrusion. Your spouse meantime reminds you to hunt down a porter once you reach the station. You grin, whisk out the mobile again and zoom into an app that allows you to book a porter. The spouse is suitably impressed. You chortle again, with a you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet look on your face.
You reach the station, hasten to your coupe, and the first thing the kids do is switch on the television — presto, on the screen is IR’s own entertainment channel and its own version of the children’s programme Thomas and Friends. The kids are wonderstruck. Why shouldn’t IR, which ferries 22 million passengers or double the population of Greece, every day have a television channel of its own, you ask, chuckling yet again. An attendant walks in and hands out packets of dry food — the railways have abandoned the elaborate cooking of rice, dal and roti in the pantry car. The upside: the coaches have never been cleaner. And they are safer too, now, with all compartments having CCTV cameras.
If this is as close to nirvana as a train journey can get, you are not wrong. But hang on: none of this has happened, not yet. These are just a few of the 1.1 lakh ideas that have emanated from a massive internal exercise by IR to generate more revenue, better margins and become more efficient. Welcome to the great Indian rail idea bazaar, a two-month-long exercise being undertaken in all the 17 zones across the country, with each of IR’s 13 lakh-odd railway employees expected to give at least one new idea. The format is non-hierarchical, and every employee — from a railway gang-man to a general manager — is expected to answer a simple question: What if you become India’s railway minister?
Until November 1, as many as 1.1 lakh new ideas landed up in Rail Bhawan, the IR headquarters in the Capital. Of these ideas, 1,400 have already been shortlisted by a panel of seven joint secretary-ranked officers who also internally “patented” those ideas so as to avoid duplication. To be sure, there is a veil of secrecy over this mammoth exercise, as IR has been planning to pick 15 best ideas and present those like business plans in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a railway offsite scheduled to be held in Haryana’s Surajkund between November 18 and 20. Named as Vikas Shivir with a tagline “Why settle for ordinary when excellence is achievable”, the event is being arranged to showcase the IR’s collective ideas to the PM. Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu and top rail officials will be present at the meet.
According to the tentative schedule, Modi will join over 650 participants from the Railways in a yoga session before listening to the presentation on the top 15 ideas. The participants will be chosen geography-wise on the strength of their ideas, and a large number of junior staff will get berths in the mega meet. ET Magazine has learnt that the PM, at the end of the event, may announce a five-year vision for the IR and roll out a campaign, possibly of the size and scale of Make in India or Digital India. “This is the first-of-a-kind exercise of crowdsourcing of ideas from railway employees across India. The idea here is to energise an organization of 1.3 million people and force everyone to come up with innovative ideas to raise additional revenues and improve services,” says a senior official in Rail Bhawan involved in organising the Surajkund meet.
He explains that this exercise will reverse the earlier top-down approach where the idea gets generated and accepted by the Railway Board, IR’s highest decision-making body, only to be implemented on the ground by the vast majority of railway employees. Former railway board chairman SS Khorana says the organisation is being forced to think differently because of its deteriorating financial health. “The reality is that freight loading is below par and the earnings from passengers have not grown along expected lines. I doubt whether the flexi-pricing mechanism, introduced recently, will make any difference to the revenues.”
Khorana has a point. Despite IR’s moves to boost its revenue through freight rationalisation, freight revenues in the July-September quarter actually declined to Rs 48,340 crore, a 10% dip over the previous fiscal year’s corresponding period. Even in volume, IR carried less freight during the period. For example, the second-quarter data showed that there was a 6% decline in the volume of cement, 5% in fertiliser and 4% in coal, over a year ago. Khorana may not be able to contribute to the ideas pool but he does have one that he thinks may arrest the downslide. “Reduce freight rates and increase passenger fares. The Railways drove away the freight volume by repeatedly increasing rates. On passenger fare hike, there will be an initial hue and cry, but people will slowly come to terms with the reality.”
At the time of writing, the top 15 ideas were yet to be finalised, according to officials involved in the event. But a large number of 1,400 short-listed ideas are related to maximising revenues through innovative means. This writer talked to 10 railway officials, including those who had ideated. For example, the deployment of smart cards, as one idea suggests, can generate `400 crore additional revenues to the IR. The move will not only plug leakages but ensure additional income from royalties, and commissions from retail transactions of travellers outside of IR. In addition, IR will get some intangibles in the form of customer loyalty programmes through smart cards. For the record, IR’s annual cash transaction on passenger tickets alone is about Rs 25,000 crore.
Another idea, as reviewed by this writer, pertains to creating heritage tourism at Rewari Steam Locomotive Shed in Haryana, which has the potential to add about Rs 30 crore to IR’s kitty every year. The shed that houses the world’s oldest working steam loco, built in 1855, in addition to nine other working steam locos, can bring in revenues through ticketing, theme-based weddings, film shootings, branding of locos, outdoor advertisements, among other avenues. This idea can be scaled by taking it all over India to similar heritage sites.
Some other ways to monetise the railway assets, as ideated by railway officers and their junior staff, include large-scale solar energy development on abundant railway land around stations in small towns, bundling of advertisements in IR’s SMS services and offering vacant and surplus railway quarters on rent to private individuals. It is through this sea of individual ideas that IR is hoping to piece together a big picture. An official on the condition of anonymity says that all ideas will be channelised into eight broad goals.
For example, the Railways will aspire to leverage its planned `8.5 lakh crore capital expenditure in five years to create an organisation that’s three times the present size, in the next 10 years. Also, it aims to reduce operational costs by 10% in the next five years, apart from increasing non-fare revenues to 15% of the total pie by redeveloping 100 railways stations and monetising other assets, including vacant land. On the non-revenue side, moving towards near-zero fatality in the next five years could become a stated objective.
Former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi compares railway employees to top-class chefs who have the right recipes but are struggling to prepare a good dish for lack of the right ingredients. “For the railway people, there is no dearth of good ideas. What they need are the right ingredients. Currently, the main ingredient they lack is a large financial investment by the government without interest burden, as the Railways can add a minimum 2.5% to GDP,” says Trivedi. Will the executive chef and the sous chef oblige with the right seasoning at the ideas junction in Surajkund?