— Shashwat DC
Every year, as the month of February advances, excitement starts building in anticipation for the Union Budgetary announcements. Experts, analysts, journalists, and even the laymen, start speculating on what could be the announcements that will be made. Much of the interest is on what will be the sops and tax-breaks, and what will the impact will be on the pockets. But the budget is also about setting the policy agenda for the coming year and for the future, through allocations and policy tweaks, the Union government can promote certain things over the other, through a subtle nudge and a full-fledged push.
The Union Budget comprises of 3 important steps, the first is the Railway Budget, followed by the Economic Survey report and finally, the Finance Bill. This year, the Railways Budget will be presented on Feb 26, followed by Economic Survey on Feb 27, and the Budget announcements on Feb 28. Thus, Railways Budget is one of the big indicators of the priorities of the government and it is not really surprising either.
The Indian Railways is one of the biggest such organisations in the world, comprising 115,000 km track. From April-December 2014, Railways earned Rs. 1,14,656.13 crore (Rs 1.14 trillion), while ferrying 6,256.16 million passengers. Indian Railways is also the world’s seventh largest commercial or utility employer, by number of employees, with over 1.307 million employees.
Every year, the Railway Budget, presented just a day or two earlier than the Union Budget, is considered less as a financial statement of world’s largest railway network, and rather more as a precursor to what the government of the day is planning and contemplating.
A rise in fares or freight rates is usually considered to be an ominous sign of bad times emanating from the Finance Minister’s dainty briefcase. Thus, from a popular stand-point, a no-increase, no-hike budget is often considered to be a good one. But this criterion of evaluation can be pretty misleading when you are chugging in the 21st century and beset by a whole set of problems – not necessarily of your own making. One of the biggest ones that Indian Railways faces currently is energy security and environmental pollution. With such huge passenger intake, Indian Railways is one of the biggest polluting companies, not only in India, but also in the world.
Yet, year after year, the Union Minister of Railways have glossed over the important issues of environment and energy. Given out little sops about renewable energy, bio-diesel, eco-toilets and so on. There has never been a visionary sort of a budget that could set the Indian Railways on course to a greener future. But this year there is far greater expectancy, largely because the man at the helm of the minister is Suresh Prabhu, a man who is well versed with environment conservation and renewable energy.
Suresh Prabhu, in the past, has helmed the ministries of power and environment and forests, and has been a big votary of the green economy. He has been a part of many panels, and was even pursuing a PhD in Climate Change, before taking up the role as the Union Minister of Railways in the current ministry. If there was any one who could bring the change (in terms of ecological shift) in the outlook of Railways, it could only be him. Hence, there is a lot of palpable excitement on what could be those announcements that will propel Indian Railways into the future. Here are some of the things that he can do to set things right:
Renewable Energy Push
Every year, in a kind of symbolism of doing good, the Railways Minister makes an announcement about greater push for renewable energy, largely solar and wind. According to the previous Rail Minister Sadanand Gowda, the annual power demand of the railways is 4,000 MW, and railways was planning to source 20% of its energy demand through renewable sources, around 500 MW. Considering the huge tracts of land at the disposal of the railways, be it open or just the station, the potential is much much bigger. Also, since Prime Minister Modi is all charged up about solar power, one can expect significant breakthroughs in terms of policy pronouncement. If the 100 GW plan of Modi government has to materialise, Indian Railways will indeed have to do a lot more than just lip-service.
Completion of the Freight Corridor
As per a story on Moneycontrol.com, “freight is almost ‘the bread and butter’ of Indian Railways, accounting for nearly 69% of the annual revenues”. Yet, the Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) that was supposed to provide a separate channel for goods to be shipped up and down the country has been a long time in the coming. Beset by delays and tribulations, the DFC has been an uncherished dream. The result, Indian Railways is losing freight traffic to road. In fact, according to a study done by Asia Development Bank, the share of freight traffic by rail has decreased from some 70% in the 1970s to around 30% now, whereas freight by road has increased to some 70% now.
The Railways quickly need to finish of the DFC, so that goods can be moved high-speed up and down the channel, and this will take the burden off the highly-polluting road traffic. Rail is 2.5 to 4 times more fuel efficient compared to road transport. That makes rail more carbon efficient compared to road transport.
Upgrading the Diesel Locomotives
Another annual feature is an announcement on the usage of Bio-Diesel in the Rail Budget. While, it is much welcome, but it does not in anyways solve the problem of carbon emissions. It is estimated that currently the Indian Railways has some 5,000 diesel, 4,500 electric and 40-odd steam locomotives. While it is quite often assumed that electrification of the network will make it more attuned to environmental norms, sadly that is just not the case. Considering that a bulk of the power generated in India (and used by railways) is thermal in nature, namely, produced by burning coal. Electricity consumption is actually no better than burning diesel. It is like a choice between burning coal or diesel.
According to a research done by a scientist Eswara Arun Kishore, Indian Railways has better CO2 emission performance with diesel locomotives. His estimations peg CO2 emissions per Net-Tonne-km for diesel locomotive at 0.00951 grams, in comparison to CO2 emissions per Net-Tonne-km for electric locomotive at 0.01146 grams, which is a difference of around 20%! In light of this, diesel locomotives need to continue, till the dependency on thermal-based electricity is brought down.
Also the primary reason why the diesel locos in India are highly inefficient and polluting, is because most of them are old and worn out. Were we to bring in the latest technology locos, the emissions could be drastically scaled down, even as we increase the efficiency. The Rail Minister should really consider this aspect seriously.
Putting in the emission standards
Surprisingly, while the car or bike that we purchase has emissions norms and we are coerced to do the PUC regularly by law, the trains are more or less free to pollute as much as they care. There are just no emission standards for locomotives, as adopted by Indian Railways. With no regulatory body or standards, it is just not possible for them to bring in ecological norms to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the West, and especially in Europe, railroad operators need to adhere to certain emission standards, and this automatically results lower carbon footprint. The Rail Minister must seriously look at this, and formulate an emission standard, thereby setting the road to future.
Some of the other things that can be also looked into:
- Bringing out a Sustainability Report on Indian Railways
- Setting up a Centre for Research on the subject, and collaborating with the likes of IITs for better environmental performance
- Greening the platforms, and looking at generating power from the waste generated from them
- Banning plastic from all platforms and trains
- Using new technologies like regenerative braking on trains to generate power
- Energy audits to improve energy efficiency on thousands of its stations and offices
- LED lighting and Energy Conversation Building Code (ECBC) for Railway Buildings
- Massive outreach program to sensitive the million + employees and turn them into eco-citizens
In the end, Indian Railways is in a position to take a lead on environmental conservation, and come this Budget, the Union Minister, Suresh Prabhu, can set the course for a greener and better future, not only for the mammoth organisation, but for India as a whole.