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In­dian Rail­ways – The Weav­ing of a Na­tional Ta­pes­try: The Rail­way Jour­ney; Tak­ing Wings and Win­ning: Rooted in Re­al­ity

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Over the past six months, a num­ber of In­dian econ­o­mists have talked about Sir Wil­liam Mitchell Acworth. In the 1920s, a 10-mem­ber com­mit­tee headed by Acworth had rec­om­mended sep­a­rat­ing rail­way fi­nances from gen­eral gov­ern­ment fi­nances. Now, nearly 92 years af­ter Acworth’s death, the gov­ern­ment has re­versed this de­ci­sion. In this year’s Union Budget, Fi­nance Min­is­ter Arun Jait­ley tabled a com­pre­hen­sive Budget; the NDA gov­ern­ment is also push­ing some other crit­i­cal re­forms in the Rail­ways, many of which were sug­gested by Acworth.

Acworth was one of the busiest men of his time. He was work­ing with the Royal Com­mis­sion of En­quiry into the Cana­dian Rail­ways, the Royal Com­mis­sion on South Rhode­sian Rail­ways, and sub­se­quently as di­rec­tor of the Un­der­ground Elec­tric Rail­ways of Lon­don (the mod­ern-day Tube) and Main­land and South West­ern Junc­tion Rail­ways. He was the point­man for the Rail­ways, not only in Eng­land, Scot­land and Ire­land but also in main­land Europe, Canada, Rhode­sia (South Africa) and the US. In­dia ac­cepted some of his rec­om­men­da­tions, in­clud­ing fis­cal re­forms and seg­re­ga­tion of the Budget, and charted a new era for its Rail­ways. If tem­ples and pil­grim­ages united an­cient In­dia, the In­dia Rail­ways did so in the mod­ern era.

Acworth was in­flu­en­tial but not the only player. Sev­eral other Bri­tish econ­o­mists, en­gi­neers and com­merce ex­perts, too, shaped In­dia’s rail­ways. In the book, In­dian Rail­ways: The Weav­ing of a Na­tional Ta­pes­try, Bibek De­broy, San­jay Chadha and Vidya Kr­ish­na­murthi nar­rate sto­ries around many of these dis­cus­sions. Many agree that some of the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Acworth Com­mit­tee are still rel­e­vant and must be im­ple­mented to mod­ernise the Rail­ways. In­ter­est­ingly, all the three au­thors, along with Gur­cha­ran Das, the edi­tor of the In­dian busi­ness se­ries that this book is part of, were on a com­mit­tee that had rec­om­mended do­ing away with the sep­a­rate Rail­way Budget.

Among other dis­cus­sions that hap­pened un­der the Bri­tish rule, the most rel­e­vant ones re­late to the rel­a­tive im­por­tance to be given to wa­ter­ways and rail­ways, role of pri­vate play­ers, bal­anc­ing of freight and pas­sen­ger traf­fic, and who will in­vest in the in­fra­struc­ture. All these sub­jects are rel­e­vant even to­day. Bri­tish en­gi­neer Sir Arthur Thomas Cot­ton, for in­stance, was in favour of con­nect­ing the sub-con­ti­nent with wa­ter­ways as an al­ter­na­tive to rail­ways. How­ever, this was op­posed by In­dian na­tion­al­ists, as they felt that if there was to be a trade-off be­tween ir­ri­ga­tion and rail­ways, it would be bet­ter to opt for ir­ri­ga­tion. It was per­ti­nent, too. As the book ex­plains, the Rail­ways were not built with In­dian eco­nomic in­ter­ests in mind, but to ex­port In­dian prod­ucts and im­port prod­ucts from Eng­land. On the other hand, ir­ri­ga­tion

would help agri­cul­ture and help erad­i­cate ru­ral poverty.

The book also has a men­tion of Royal En­gi­neer Sir Row­land Macdon­ald Stephen­son, ‘the man with wild dreams’, who put on pa­per the first plan to con­nect Cal­cutta (East In­dia Com­pany) with Lon­don with two breaks, one at the English Chan­nel and the other at Dar­danelles. He was not as ec­cen­tric as many gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials thought. He was think­ing be­yond Cal­cutta and some short-term in­ter­ests of Bri­tish and In­dian traders. Stephen­son’s ar­gu­ments were sup­ported with de­vel­op­ments and con­nec­tiv­ity im­prove­ments in main­land Europe. He trav­elled to China in 1859 to seek sup­port for his idea to con­nect Cal­cutta with Hong Kong, Pek­ing and other parts of China. But as his­tory would have it, all this stayed on pa­per.

The his­tory of the Rail­ways in In­dia is in­ter­est­ing, but it was not hap­pen­ing in iso­la­tion. The evo­lu­tion saw changes un­der three gov­er­nance mod­els — the crum­bling East In­dia Com­pany, 90 years of Bri­tish rule, fol­lowed by rule by In­di­ans.

The book puts in per­spec­tive sev­eral crit­i­cal in­ci­dents and takes you behind the scenes. Prior to this, there have been sev­eral works that have put many of the events on record, such as Nali­naksha Sanyal’s De­vel­op­ment of In­dian Rail­ways, Ian J. Kerr’s Build­ing the Rail­ways of the Raj, Laura Bear’s Lines of the Na­tion, Mar­ian Aguiar’s Track­ing Moder­nity, along with John Hurd’s and Ian J. Kerr’s In­dia’s Rail­way His­tory – which is con­sid­ered a mus­tread to un­der­stand many of the events that have hap­pened over the last 175 years.

The book is a de­cent at­tempt at bring­ing rel­e­vance to the his­tory of In­dia’s pre­mier trans­porter, es­pe­cially at the time when the gov­ern­ment is go­ing all out to make it more ef­fi­cient and mod­ern.

Al­though the re­search is good, the nar­ra­tion is medi­ocre. The poor pro­duc­tion of pic­tures leaves a lot to be de­sired. More­over, while the book talks in de­tail about what was hap­pen­ing in In­dia, it ig­nores the fact that the Bri­tish, along with other Euro­pean coun­tries, were do­ing sim­i­lar ex­er­cises in other colonies as well. These miss­ing as­pects could have made this book a must-read. Still, it is a good read for first timers and can act as a trig­ger for oth­ers to un­der­take more re­search and pro­duce more in­ter­est­ing lit­er­a­ture on the sub­ject. ~

BY BIBEK DE­BROY, SAN­JAY CHADHA, VIDYA KR­ISH­NA­MURTHI PAGES: 264 PRICE: ` 299 PEN­GUIN RAN­DOM HOUSE In­dian Rail­ways: The Weav­ing of a Na­tional Ta­pes­try

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