Railway as losing concern: Who benefits from huge spending?

Prothom Alo published a report on the state-owned railways on 24 September, which revealed various irregularities and disorders. The state-owned organisation is crippled due to losses.

While many countries including India have turned railways as the key means of communication, all the previous governments of Bangladesh have been neglecting the railways. For many years it was kept under the ministry of communications rather than as a separate ministry.

Railways was established as a separate ministry after Awami League came to power in 2009. Despite spending almost Tk 920 billion on the development of railways, the people did not get the benefits due to the short-sighted and arbitrary decisions of the authorities. They fail to understand that the purchase of engines and coaches is more important than the construction of new rail lines, bridges and buildings.

Railway authorities claim that 368 passenger trains are operating in the country. The actual number is 276. The number of intercity trains is 104. However, 67 per cent of railway engines and 47 per cent of coaches are expired. Among them, there are 95 pre-independence engines. The purpose of operating with the old engine instead of buying a new engine is clear. The older the engine, the higher the repair cost. No coach is provided according to passenger demand on any route. As a result, almost every train is forced to carry more passengers than its capacity. Many passengers have to return as there are not adequate seats available.

Like his predecessors, the current minister Nurul Islam also spoke big of the development of railways. But in reality, the railways are operating as before. Nine new intercity trains were launched during his time, two of which were in his own district Panchagarh.

Questions have been raised about its justification. The minister himself admitted of the various problems of the railways and said, “There was nothing before. Now the government is trying to solve all the problems one by one.'' The railway minister before him claimed similar success. And the previous minister was involved in corruption himself while supposedly trying to detect corruption in the sector.

No one will agree with the claim that corruption has vanished from the railway sector. From recruiting to promotion, from purchasing to selling tickets—irregularities, mismanagement and corruption are everywhere in the railways. In 2019, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in a report identified 10 sources of corruption in the railways, including its water reservoir and pond leasing, machinery procurement, auctions, ticket black market and so on.

To stop this corruption, ACC recommended 15 points, including ensuring transparency and accountability through digital management at every step of the recruitment process, increasing capacity to build coaches in own factories by discouraging import of coaches, and selling all tickets digitally.

We are not aware of any of these being implemented. A hype was created across the country when a student of Dhaka University took position at Kamalapur station to demonstrate against the black market of railway tickets last Eid. In various places where he was seen, people raised their voices against the corruption in the railways, but the authorities denied everything as usual. Prothom Alo's report proved one just cannot deny the fact by turning a blind eye.

Bangladesh Railway is spending billions every year, but the passengers are not getting the benefit, the capacity of the institution is not increasing. So who is reaping the benefit of the huge amount spent?