This Day 73 Years Ago, Independent India’s First Interim Railway Budget Was Presented by John Mathai

Exactly seventy-three years ago on 20th November 1947, Dr John Mathai, then Railway Minister, presented his first interim railway budget of Independent India.

John Mathai, the first Railway Minister of Independent India

The first issue flagged by the then Railway Minister Dr John Mathai in his interim railway budget was the turnaround of goods wagons. Wagon turnaround remains a performance metric that is monitored to this day. The term is used for the average time taken for a wagon to perform a round trip and return to take up a fresh load of cargo.

In his budget speech, he expressed concern that India had 15 per cent more number of wagons than the year 1938-39. However, the goods traffic had increased by 20 per cent since 1938-39 resulting in a slight gap.

Partition and Higher Wagon Turnaround Time

He observed that wagon movement had slowed down mainly because the wagon turnaround time, which was averaging at 9-10 days in 1938-39, increased to 14-15 days in 1947.

This resulted in a 40 to 50 per cent decline in the availability of wagon accommodation as compared to pre-war (1938-39 when the 2nd world war started), he said.

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The decline according to Mathai started in August 1946 due to civil disturbances. The decline in monthly coal despatches from 24 lakh tonnes in the first half of 1946 to 20 lakh tonnes in the second half by October -November, a 16 per cent drop was a considerable figure for coal traffic according to Mathai. Civil disturbances in Punjab intensified this, he said.

Change in Traffic Patterns

Another change which occurred to the channels of traffic pertained to the import of food grains from America. Prior to partition, this cargo would land in Karachi. Now it came to Bombay, Mathai observed. This exerted significant pressure on the Bombay Port and also the Railways which in turn transported the imported food grain to the hinterland.

The second world war ensured that industries were started in parts of India where there were none earlier. For example, the quantity of coal being transported from MoghalSerai (later known as Mughalsarai, and now Deendayal Upadhyaya Junction) to Upper India was very small in the pre-war period than in 1947. Mathai said that the quantity of coal transported from MoghaSerai to Upper India rose by 50 per cent from pre-war levels.

Another case in point was the transportation of coal from Bombay to Kathiawar. Sent by sea earlier, lack of shipping space took away a major portion of this cargo to railways.

Bottlenecks in Marshalling Yard Capacity

Changes in the traffic pattern post-independence increased the turn-round time. The capacity of marshalling yards which sorted wagons to be sent to their ultimate destinations was fixed at pre-war levels. So was the line capacity.

The newer routes used for coal transportation post-independence had lower traffic handling capacities with respect to both marshalling yards and track as these had been fixed as per the pre-war traffic requirements.

Capacity enhancement of the marshalling yards and track was hampered due to the lack of building materials in those days, Mathai felt.

Short Supply of Locomotives

Locomotives were also in short supply. Before partition, India had 8,400 locos, both broad gauge and metre gauge. Of this, 2900 were over-age and had outlived their codal life. They could not be replaced instantly as India did not manufacture locos and their spares in those days.

In addition, there was a decline in the output of railway workshops due to labour unrest and non-availability of spares.

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 The number of days to overhaul a BG loco increased from 40 days in 1938-39 to 48 days in 1946-47 declined the output by 20 per cent. MG workshops were worse off. The number of days increased from 31 to 51 for the above mentioned period a decline of 60 per cent.

Coal transport was becoming a major pain point. Higher wagon turn round meant that the space was not available with collieries to stack up coal as there was coal already waiting to be transported due to non-availability of wagons.

This also blocked working capital of collieries, which in turn had altered their production schedules.

 The slow down in production also meant that labour had to be let go of, creating a social issue.

Partition and Sharp Decline in Engine Driver Numbers

 As per the original plan, all Muslim engine drivers especially on East Indian Railway (EIR) who had opted to go to Pakistan were to be relieved over a period upto March 1948.

 However, the riots in Punjab during partition altered the atmosphere drastically. “There was tension between Muslim and non-Muslim employees, particularly the engine crew,” Mathai said.

This prompted the then Government of India to immediately release all employees who had opted to go to Pakistan (including railways) by the end of   September 1947.

This resulted in a sharp drop of engine drivers required to work locos. EIR saw a 47 per cent shortage and this directly reflected in the coal traffic numbers. A total of 2487 wagons were despatched in a day by both EIR and Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR) on September 29, 1947. This number came down to 1410 wagons in a matter of three days on October 2, 1947.

 A national crisis was looming large.

Solutions: Indian Railways’ Three-Pronged Approach

A three-pronged approach to this issue was taken immediately by the administrations concerned.

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The first step was the elevation of junior engine workers such as firemen and cleaners to drivers despite their possessing a lesser number of years of experience to be made a driver. The second step was diverting a large number of drivers from other sections of these railways to the collieries.

Third was speedy recruitment of staff who had opted to relocate to India.

Hence, EIR was able to bring down the shortage from 47 per cent to 25 per cent.

Stocks at Collieries

 When Mathai delivered the first interim railway budget on November 20,1947 about 18 lakh tonnes of coal had accumulated at the collieries.

Of this the normal stock at collieries was 8 to 9 lakh tonnes.

About 2600 to 2700 wagons in total were being moved daily during that time by EIR and BNR. This was sufficient to move the coal produced in those days (November 1947).  

To move the accumulated coal surplus, an additional 200 wagons were required. Mathai was optimistic that the means that were being devised then were enough to fulfil the requirement in a short time.

End of Part 1 

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About the Author: Raghavendra Rao

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