The passing away of the former Railway Financial Commissioner Vijayalakshmi Viswanathan recently is a big loss to the Indian Railways (IR). She continued to advise the Railways, even after her superannuation in November 2005, till last year.
For journalists who came into contact with her when she held the office of the Financial Commissioner for three years from November 2002 to November 2005, the loss is especially sharp. She would rarely avoid ducking inconvenient questions, but, in fact, would readily to respond to them with the enthusiasm of a teacher clarifying a point.
She was a moderating influence in the midst of all the agitation and excitement typical of press meetings that followed the presentation of the Rail Budget.
I had the opportunity of presenting her exclusive views on Rail Budgets when she served both the former Railway Minister Nitish Kumar and also his successor Lalu Prasad last decade.
If the latter was hailed as a saviour of the Indian Railways, emerging as an object lesson for management students across the globe to study the turnaround of IR in mid-2005, it was not least due to the presence of this able Financial Commissioner from the Indian Railway Accounts Service (IRAS) in the Railway Management System.
As everybody knows, the Railways cross-subsidises passenger fare with freight fares, the latter being jacked up year after year.
It was she who was instrumental in introducing rationalisation of freight rates for the first time in 2003-04, enabling Nitish Kumar to present a ‘populist Budget’ and sparing passenger and freight users in the run-up to the 2004 General Election.
Defending this deft move, she told Business Line then that “the fare has not been increased does not mean that it is not a rational exercise. What we have done is to bring down freight rate so that the gap between freight and fare is going to be reduced. Whatever reduction we have in freight, we are going to make up in volumes”.
She was proved right, as the volume growth of the Railways picked up in subsequent years.
In fact, this rationalisation of freight was later on carried further when Lalu Prasad gave discounts on empty wagons on return trips carrying freight.
During one Rail Budget, after the usual press meet which went on longer than usual, I was jittery lest the one-to-one interview with her were to be scuttled.
The electronic media had arrived on the scene, leading to a jostle to grab sound bytes from top echelons of administration. I was not optimistic of my chances.
So, when the press meet was over and the FC was about to get into her official car through another gate, I rushed to remind her of the lost appointment to me!
She lost little time in asking me to get into the vehicle and travel with her till she reached the channel studio in Karol Bagh.
Moved by her earnestness not to disappoint me, I went with her and recorded her views in the running car. The 20-minute drive was sufficient to get her incisive and informative comments on the Rail Budget.
Such professional and personal commitment is a rarity.