A safe rail budget, but questions remain
As Indian Railways is not in the pink of health fincially, expectedly Rail Budget 2015 is more an exercise in consolidation. With the ministry conducting a ground review about its capacity to add more trains, Railway minister Suresh Prabhu has not announced any new trains in the budget. Neither has he raised passenger fares, which account for one-fourth of Railway earnings. However, the passenger division uses up more than half the Railway expenses and has been consistently making losses over the years. Around two-thirds Railway earnings come from transporting iron, cement, coal and petroleum products, which explains why Prabhu has tinkered with the freight rates of these commodities to rake in more money. Let us not forget that in earlier railway budgets too, the easier option has been to raise freight rates, which is increasingly making companies favour roadways over railways. The Railway minister wishes to put greater thrust on resource mobilisation to make higher investments, decongest busy routes, speed up trains, improve passenger amenities and increase safety. These are all laudable goals, and he has announced some welcome measures to make rail travel a better and hopefully cleaner experience.
For rail passengers who wish to plan their journey much earlier, the Railway minister has increased the reserved ticket booking period from two months to four months. At the same time he has provided for those who need to go by rail at short notice, so that they can travel unreserved by purchasing ticket within five minutes with smart phones and debit cards. SMS alert service will be introduced to inform passengers of updated arrival and departure times of trains at starting or destition stations. For greater safety of women passengers, Prabhu has proposed to increase the number of surveillance cameras in coaches and women compartments. Lower berths for the elderly, braille-ebled coaches to make travelling easier for the blind, concessiol e-tickets after one-time registration for the differently-abled, online booking of wheelchairs for aged, disabled and pregnt women passengers — are all enlightened measures that should have come much earlier. To attend to complaints of rail passengers in real time, there is the proposal for an all-India 24X7 helpline number 138. One particularly welcome initiative is in line with the Swacch Bharat campaign by Prime Minister rendra Modi to clean up the country. For long, open toilets in trains have made visiting rail stations and crossing rail tracks a filthy, stinking experience. For starters, the Railway minister has proposed installing 17,000 bio-toilets in trains. An entire department will be created for keeping rail stations and trains clean. Integrated cleaning will be taken up as a specialized activity, for which professiol agencies will be roped in.
As for the Northeast, there are no particular announcements in this rail budget to evoke much enthusiasm. The Railway minister has spoken about improving rail connectivity to Aruchal Pradesh and Meghalaya. The broad gauge conversion project in Barak valley will be completed in March this year. But when will the tenuous single-track rail connectivity to the entire Northeast be converted into double track? Why have successive Railway ministers shied away from making any firm commitment to do so? Meanwhile Prabhu’s rail budget has been received coolly in the stock market. Questions are being asked how long Indian Railways can keep on losing an average Rs 26,000 crore every year. The Railway minister has announced that a total Rs 8.5 lakh crore will be spent over the next five years, which will be raised through ‘special purpose vehicles’ (SPV) and partnerships with public and private sector players. But markets are not convinced whether that will be possible. There are also doubts about how Prabhu will go about his plans to monetize unused assets of the Railways through further investments. In his White Paper tabled in Parliament, the Railway minister spoke about the next five years that should change the face of Indian Railways with faster and modern trains, swanky stations and skilled staff. How he will bring it about while making the Railways ‘throw away its crutches of support and generate its own resources for development’, remains to be seen.