WITH 12,000 passenger and 7000 freight trains per day, Indian Railways' (IR) operations inevitably have a major impact on the environment and society.

Despite no efforts to measure IR's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and waste generation, it is safe to assume that these factors will maintain their upward trend as India's population and demand for mobility continue to increase.

Globally, railways account for 2.2% of the transport sector's energy consumption and 3.3% of its CO2 emissions. Although this is a small fraction of the sector as a whole, railways still need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions significantly to help avoid a potential average world temperature increase of 2°C by 2050. IR therefore cannot ignore its responsibility.

In spite of past incoherent policies and challenging market conditions, IR has taken numerous steps recently to incorporate sustainability into its business operations. Its Vision Document 2020 clearly spells out measures to provide environmentally-friendly sustainable integrated solutions, and it has become customary for the railway minister to announce several green measures in the annual railway budget.

While some of these measures have resulted in encouraging outcomes, others have found the going tough. For example, the announcement made in the 2014 railway budget to use 5% biofuel for diesel operations is still grappling with market and regulatory challenges. It is hoped that the new railway minister, Mr Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu, will aid efforts to overcome these difficulties before the next budget announcement in the spring.

In terms of energy consumption, IR's decision to replace 1.4 million incandescent lamps (ICLs) with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) has been a resounding success. The project resulted in annual energy saving of 112 giga units, a CO2 emission reduction of 90,000 tonnes, and the introduction of green energy solutions at 4 million locations.

The success of this project has resulted in similar initiatives. These include procuring energy-efficient electrical appliances, installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on buildings, electricity substations and level crossings, and the growing use of three-phase traction locomotives over conventional units. The ongoing $US 500m multi-year project to improve energy efficiency for both traction and non-traction uses, which is supported by Global Environment Fund (GEF), is also influenced by this policy.


Sustainability initiatives have not been limited to the energy sector, with the 2013 railway budget including measures to procure recycled paper. While the impact of this decision on reducing greenhouse gas emission is small, the concept is promoting a sense within the railway that recycling is not such a bad word after all, which is important in helping IR to reduce its resource consumption.

IR also commissioned its first platinum-rated LEED certified 'Green Building' in 2013, further demonstrating its growing appetite to introduce measures to reduce its environmental impacts. But are these actions enough?

If one delves deeper into these initiatives, it is evident that apart from energy efficiency, there is no institutional mechanism nurturing and promoting sustainability in other areas. For example with IR not indicating a desire to reduce water consumption or minimise its waste, it is left to individual "sustainability champions" to carry out such initiatives under their own zeal and motivation, with minimal institutional support.

These sustainability champions are not able to integrate sustainability into wider decision-making to replicate their approach on a larger scale, meaning that sustainability is given little thought in major decisions.

No organisation, private or public, in the world today can afford to run a business without a fully-fledged sustainability division. Thus IR has a unique distinction. With no corporate plan on how to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, there is no target and no assessment criteria from which it can measure its success or failures.

To overcome this current lack of regard for sustainability and become a sustainability-savvy organisation, IR would have to make long-term commitments. Prabhu's recent statement that IR needs to diversify its energy portfolio to include green energy, and thereby reduce its carbon footprint, is a welcome change in rhetoric. However, this needs to be reinforced by a corporate plan and the institutional setup to advance this agenda.

IR could make a positive step by integrating sustainability into procurement. IT equipment, paint, and lead batteries are all suitable for such a classification, and IR as a major purchaser of these items can set an example to others. Adopting a sustainable procurement policy will also enable IR to identify key areas and engage with major stakeholders to address sustainability issues.

I like to think there is a silver lining to this dark cloud. Current initiatives, while small for a mammoth organisation like IR, have helped to build awareness among the railway fraternity to speed up the long journey towards sustainability. However, this is an opportunity for IR to show its true potential to the world as a flag bearer for sustainable policy-making. It is time to grab this opportunity and meet the challenge head-on.