Originally Published 2015-02-27 00:00:00 Published on Feb 27, 2015
The Railway Minister's maiden Budget was full of promises and beautiful dreams which if realised will surely make the Indian Railways one of the world?s best. If he can succeed in fulfilling his pledges, Indian railways will have a great turnaround and facelift.
Railway Budget - Innovative and promising
Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu's maiden Budget was full of promises and beautiful dreams which if realised will surely make the Indian Railways one of the world's best. If he can succeed in fulfilling his pledges, Indian railways will have a great turnaround and facelift. From being dirty, unsafe and with creaking rolling stock, and an unsavoury experience, it could elevate and energise passengers. To bring railways to world class level, a lot of investments will have to be undertaken and he was not stingy about drawing out an enormous budget ( 52%) hike in Railway investment expenditure. How he is going to garner Rs 8.5 lakh crores ( $137 billion) in 5 years is a mystery that has not been spelt out clearly.

He has talked about PPP model (public private partnership) that has not worked successfully in India and BOT ( build operate and transfer) involving the private sector. Mercifully he has not talked about privatising railways in bits and pieces. Instead, his grandiose plan encompasses schemes that resonate Prime Minister Modi's promises and pet projects of 'Swatch Bharat', Make in India and Digital India. His operation 'clean up' of railways is welcome. Most people encounter filth and dirt in railway stations and the toilets are unusable because of their lack of hygiene and untidiness. Prabhu has claimed that some of the existing railway toilets have already been replaced by 17, 388 bio toilets and this year 17,000 more toilets will be replaced. There will be new toilets covering 650 additional stations. Would this be enough to cater to the needs of 23 million passengers that travel daily in India? At least it is a good beginning.

Every year, the government loses Rs 26,000 crore in subsidising passenger fares. This year, even though diesel and petrol prices have come down and there was an expectation from the people for a reduction in rail fares, the fares have remained the same. With 13.1 lakh employees, the railway ministry spends most of the money ( 94%) in paying salaries and wages. This year, Prabhu has announced a reduction in operational ratio to 88 per cent. This means that there is going to be very little money to spend on infrastructure.

He has also announced 77 new rail projects and will commission 1200 km in 2015-16 at an additional investment of Rs 8696 crore. This is going to be 84 per cent higher than investment in 2014-15. He has also promised to convert small gauge to broad gauge amounting to 800 km. His dream project of extending the rail network to cover 9400 km and doubling/tripling/quadrupling existing works along with electrification will cost Rs 96, 182 crore which will be 2700 percent higher in terms of amount sanctioned in 2013-14.

Railway passengers routinely have many grievances in their daily travels, specially on local trains. There is no one to listen to them or help them. Passengers, especially women, are left to fend for themselves when travelling alone in trains. Now there will be a Helpline for real time assistance and grievances and there will be security helpline for female passengers.

India being a country with more mobile phones than toilets needs mobile connectivity in stations. The minister has promised that there would be Wi-fi in 400 stations in Metros and cities. For passengers who complain of lack of easy access to tickets, there will be advance booking of 120 days and booking ticket could be done 4 months in advance.

Lots more has been promised for making the passengers' journey more comfortable . There will be e-catering which means you could choose your menu in advance from a range of cuisines including local food. There would be disposable bed linen available also on request. All these facilities should increase the comfort level of ordinary passengers and make railway journeys a pleasurable experience.

Why did the stock market react adversely then? Because there are certain anomalies in the Railway budget regarding freight and freight charges that upset business. When the chosen mode of transport should be railways because of its low pollution level, why has the minister chosen to increase the freight charges of 12 commodities? After all 2.65 million tonnes of freight is carried by the railways daily. Cement, coal, pulses, iron and steel, ground-nut oil, LPG and Kerosene freight rates have all been hiked between the range of 0.8 per cent to 10 per cent.

Environmentally Railways are much less polluting than road traffic. Energy consumption of railways is 75 per cent to 90 per cent less for freight traffic as compared to road. Carbon dioxide emission is also 80 per cent less than for road traffic. It is the largest consumer of electricity and if there is less energy consumption through various energy conservation measures, the benefits would be great. An Environment Directorate will be set up in Rail Board. Also setting up of solar power plans of 1000MW on railways private land and railways buildings would be important for supplying railways with electricity. It will help reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Another important question- of accident preventions -- has been addressed by the latest Railway Budget. The minister is going to depend on technology for eliminating the threat posed by unmanned level crossings. Some other technology related reforms would enable passengers to get information on latest berth availability on line, using a mobile app to lodge complaints/grievances, and have SMS alerts about the status of timing of trains. There would also Bar coded tracking of parcels, automated parcel warehouses and customer relationship management system that would make commercial consumer's life easier. Obviously the railways are going for a big doze of modernization and digitalization. There will also be surveillance cameras in ladies compartments in suburban coaches.

Suresh Prabhu has tried to be innovative and did not announce any new trains except for the bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmadabad. He seemed to be keen that his budget be recognised as a path breaking one. Within a few months we shall know whether the Railway Minister's vision has actually translated into reality or not. The problem of finding finances however will be a haunting task.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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David Rusnok

David Rusnok

David Rusnok Researcher Strengthening National Climate Policy Implementation (SNAPFI) project DIW Germany

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