Friday, February 26, 2010

Railway Budget 2010-11

Imagine an inefficient software which takes more time to do a job than what it commits to take. As a software developer, your solution would probably be to look into where the inefficiency is coming from. Are there some bottlenecks which is taking a lot of CPU cycle? Is a lot of thrashing happening because of memory leaks? Are 'exceptions' happening just too often? Or is there inadequate synchronization between multiple threads?

The developer has two solutions. One is to look at the above issues and see if some optimizations can be done, perhaps by using better algorithms, better thread synchronizations to eliminate bottlenecks, or by redesigning the code. Another is to ship an extra piece of RAM and a better processor chip along with the software. A yet another - third - solution is to live with the issues.

As a developer which one do you think your client would be most satisfied to receive?

Hold that thought. Let's come to the Railway Budget 2010-11. This years budget was comparatively good. Apart from the usual increase in trains, there were some really good initiatives like - installation of bottling plants, pilot on smoke and fire detection, pilot on collision prevention, construct 1000km of rail line, etc. I don't claim to be exhaustive here - as there are umpteen other, probably more significant, provisions in the budget which i have not covered.

But then, India is a democracy.

If you ask an average Indian, what would you want out of railways and he would say - better facilities, more trains and cheaper fares. And that is what the governments have been giving them. This time also, Mamata Banerjee has budget for revamping the stations, creating employment by upgrading various locomotives factories and new trains. This is all very good and much needed.

There is one thing which most of us have taken for granted - delays. Have you ever reached 'on time' while traveling by the Railways? We have learned to plan things accordingly. We assume that a 20-hour journey would be around 3 hours late. Yes, we do get upset if it gets 7 hours late - which, you would agree, is not very uncommon. However a couple of hours here and there are fine. Since, the delay in trains doesn't really bother us, it doesn't really bother the government either.

Budget should be allocated to research on the current railway architecture and redesign it such that the delays in train are minimized. If need be, estimates for the time taken to go from one place to another should be revised - but once done, it should stick to it. Railways was designed by the Britishers. And though more than 90% of their trains run on-time, it's almost the reverse in case of India. The fun part is that i couldn't get hold of any data on the punctuality of Indian railways. All this only goes to say that punctuality of railways is very low on the priority list for the railways.

But efficiency is not low on priority to the software engineer described above. He cannot offer his client a free RAM and CPU to support his inefficient code. He would, rather, go about looking how he can optimize his code to meet the requirements. The same is with Railways. It needs to be punctual and hence efficient.

The advantage of having punctual Railways is manifold. Apart from the customer satisfaction (which no one cares of), the operating costs of Railways would decrease. The usage of resources - water, electricity, platform, etc. - would decrease. And as they say - money saved is money earned. The accidents due to untimely running trains may also decrease. On the other hand, the budget required in the research would not be prohibitive. Human labor in India, unfortunately, is cheap. Getting the right people to look into it should not pose a problem. What is required is a will.

However, it's not an easy task. There are practical problems which would not be easy to address. The fog in some places during the winters is too prohibitive. But i am sure, given the scientific advancement, it is solvable. The naxalites digging up the rail line is also a problem - but it is a different topic all together. Earthquakes and people committing suicide on railways are also challenges in making the railways punctual. But, it's not impossible. It's doable and has been done elsewhere in the world.

In democracy, things do not always work out in a top-down approach. Things work bottom-top. It's only when people start asking for things would they start getting things. We have started becoming more punctual ourselves and become more aware of the importance of punctuality. Having a commitment for working on a financial model for the railways projects in this budget i see light at the end of the tunnel. We will have a punctuality of trains in public debate some day. I am hopeful. Deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall have punctual trains some day. 

At the end of the day, it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.


Nalini Hebbar February 26, 2010 at 7:54 AM  

India is indeed a chaotic country, what with its teeming billions...can anyone be perfect if one gets elbowed in the crowd every now and then. But I think she is holding up quite well, with a brave face though her problems show like the slip below the skirt...I am sure we will come thru...smiling...may be her billions will be her saving grace.

great analogy...the CPU and the nation...well tackled

deicider February 26, 2010 at 11:23 AM  

Nice post,tackles a specific problem very eloquently while giving small brush strokes on much larger issues.But I must say the delay in trains has gone down much more than before,if personal experience is any parameter.I travelled recently from DhanBad to Asansol and from there to Kolkata ,then to Puri and back to Kolkata.At all times the trains were on or before time.Recently attended a collegaue's wedding in GULBARGA(north karnataka) and there also the to and fro journey by train was exactly on time.In the few cases where I have travelled to Kolkata by train from Bangalore or via Chennai,my train has always been on time,sometimes it was maybe half an hour behind but given the distance that is pardonable.This is in no way an indication that trains all over India operate on time but the situation is definitely much better than it used to be 10 years ago and I know from my extensive experience of travelling almost all over India through my life.Also this is not a lethargy that is found only in India.On a trip to Copenhagen,me and my colleague took a train to Germany and then to Paris.This was the City Night Line ,a part of Eurail.In the first case the train to Germany was late by 4 hours which made us miss our connecting train to Paris.The same experience was repeated while travelling to Belgium from Denmark.The connecting train from Germany was late by 6 hours!These are not special cases,a small chat with Danish railway officials revelaed that their City Night Line is almost always running behind schedule by 2 hours or so and this in a country with much lesser population to handle than us,probably a much better model of democracy and definitely a stronger inclination on punctuality.When we talk about Indian railways lets not forget the Mumbai local trains which are always on time and so is true for local(s)in most parts of India.I am sure that betterment is possible on all counts and should always be the prpiority of people in a democracy but a closer look at how railways operate is going to reveal more intricacies that we need to take care of...your post is definitely one in the long line of events that will scrutinise our focus in that direction.
Deep in my heart ,I do believe ,we shall overcome some day!

Prashant Mehta February 27, 2010 at 1:44 AM  

Nalini Hebbar ji
Yes. When we talk of India we talk of a billion odd people. But isn't life all about striving to be better than what we were yesterday!

deicider ji
Yes. I agree. There has been tremendous improvement in train timings. i no longer hear of trains being 24 hours late! Having a western country with not-so-punctual railways doesn't mean that we don't improve. I know you never meant that - all you meant was to bring to light worse system.

deicider February 27, 2010 at 7:22 PM  

Prashant ji:
All I meant was democracy has nothing to do atleast literally with train timings.Denmark is supposed to ahe a better democracy than us and better engineers and op research guys using better logistics to solev their problems.But I guess no democratic system can be absolutely flawless!

Naveen JP March 2, 2010 at 11:53 AM  

Also, India is still maturing as a democracy and has some distance to go. Simple things like the RTI and much more to come are examples of a democracy that is definitely moving in the right direction.

Lavanya March 4, 2010 at 5:57 PM  

nice post Prashant. As usual, I like your logical analysis and probable solutions to the problem.
Great going!

Prashant Mehta March 5, 2010 at 5:59 PM  

deicider ji
I am not sure if i have enough evidence as to which is a better democracy and which has better engineers. Yes, democracy, by definition, is self correcting - and not flawless.

Naveen JP ji
Yes. India is still maturing as a democracy. And India is still a developing nation!

Lavanya ji

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