By J P Rajkhowa
The Railway Budget 2015-16, placed in the Lok Sabha on 26 February Thursday, by Union Minister Suresh Prabhu, has created much flutter among cross sections of people and organizations, particularly in Assam, over the alleged neglect of the interests of the region. While the ruling BJP at the Centre has termed the Budget as development-oriented to serve the interests of the railway passengers, with new features added to different categories of trains and classes in trains, aimed at cutting travel time and increasing safety and amenities of passengers, with focus on women, senior citizens, disabled etc., and tuned in the campaign for ‘swach Bharat abhijan’ and ‘make in India’ policy, the opposition leaders have criticized it, for failing to announce new passenger trains, new routes, hike in the freight rates of essential commodities as well as essential construction items like cement, iron & steel etc. and not reducing the passenger fares in spite of drastic fall in diesel prices, as well as for opening the door for private sector entry in to the Railway, in the me of ‘fund crunch’.
We may have a look at what Prabhu had to say in his ‘dream budget’. The minister outlined four goals, for improvement in the Indian Railways over next five years for which, he kept a provision of Rs.8, 50,000 Crore. The goals are: giving a huge boost to customer experience, ensuring safer travel, modernization of infrastructure and making the Railways fincially self-sustaible. “Given the importance of rail travel to the citizens, Indian Railways will increase the daily passenger-carrying capacity from 21 million to 30 million,” he said. “It will also increase track length by 20 per cent from 1, 14,000 km to 1, 38,000 km, and will grow its annual freight carrying capacity from 1 billion to 1.5 billion tonnes.”
Prabhu expects the Railways to generate large surpluses from its operations not only to service the debt needed to fund capacity expansion, but also to invest on an on-going basis to replace its depreciating assets. He added: “This will require material improvement in operating efficiency, tighter control over costs, greater discipline over project selection and execution, and a significant boost to railways’ revenue generating capacity.” The minister has targeted to bring down the operation cost out of the Railways earnings from the present level of above 90 per cent to 88.5 per cent, which would be more or less in line with the bench mark in developed countries and make resources available for development initiatives.
We welcome the following innovative, passenger-friendly announcements made in the Rail Budget:-
*No increase in railway passenger fares; a pan-India 24 x 7 helpline number; a mobile application to address complaints of people; ‘Operation 5 minutes’ to ensure that a passenger travelling unreserved (without ticket) can purchase a ticket from the TTC within five minutes; SMS alert services for passengers to inform them about arrival and departure of trains; modern facilities for disabled citizens, senior citizens, patients through IRCTC (Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation); 24 to 26 coaches in certain identified trains, more general class coaches, ladders to be replaced; WIFI facilities to be provided in 400 stations; for defence personnel, introduction of integrated ticketing will be done, a defence travel system has been developed to make travel easier, as compared to the ‘warrant system’; Replacement of 17,000 more toilets with bio- toilets to be undertaken this year; provision of Surveillance cameras on select mainline and ladies compartments; Cleanliness in Railways highest priority under ‘Swachh Rail Swachh Bharat” for which a separate department will be created in the Railways; Travel between Delhi- Mumbai and Delhi- Kolkata to be an overnight journey through increase in speed of trains; 3438 level crossings to be elimited for which ISRO to be involved; Paperless E’ ticketing, hand- held device for TTEs to be introduced.
The Railway minister has not proposed any hike in the ‘passenger fares’ considering the poor availability of railway facilities, i.e., safety, quality of service, standards and efficiency ‘all suffered due to poor fincial resources available with the Indian Railways in recent decades, which is the result of ‘under investment that affects capacity, leading to poor morale. This fed into vicious cycle of chronic under-investment for a long time’, he said. “This must be put to an end. We have to make Indian Railways a benchmark organisation in safety, security and infrastructure’. However, Prabhu made no mention of massive corruption in the Railways at different levels, which has cost it dearly over the decades, nor did he mention about the huge losses the Railways had incurred for taking up uneconomic, unviable routes and increasing the number of new trains haphazardly, at the behest of politicians- the former Railway ministers in particular. We still hope that, the Railway minister, a former chartered accountant, by profession, knows very well the areas of corruption in the Indian Railways too, and would work out ‘fool proof’ systems & procedures, apart from ‘digitalization’ to combat the mece of corruption and thereby enhance the profitability, efficiency and effectiveness of Indian Railways.
While all passengers should be pleased with Prabhu for not hiking the fares in any of the Classes of ‘passenger trains’, the general people and sections of the business community, farmers, house wife, entrepreneurs, builders etc. have reasons to be unhappy due to hike in the ‘freight rates’ of certain specified items. The Railway minister proposed to hike freight rates for 12 commodities in the range of 0.8 per cent to 10 per cent. “The proposed hike for cement, coal, iron and steel, grains & pulses, urea, groundnut oil, LPG and kerosene is 2.7 per cent, 6.3 per cent, 0.8 per cent, 10 per cent, 2.1 per cent, 0.8 per cent and 0.8 per cent respectively. However, for limestone, dolomite & manganese and speed diesel oil the rates have been reduced by 0.3 per cent and 1 per cent. The railways minister has also raised the base freight rates by up to 10 per cent’’. It is very likely that, the hike in freight rates would impact on the prices and the inflation rate which came down, in recent days, would again shoot up substantially.
The Railway Budget envisages an ambitious investment of Rs.8, 50,000 crore over the next five years- mostly directed towards modernizing existing tracks and introducing faster trains. He has indicated that the railways would need $100 billion or Rs.6, 00,000 crore in funding, over the next three to four years. Apart from interl surplus to be created through increasing operatiol efficiency, he proposes to tap sources like multilateral development banks, pension funds etc., which have shown keen interest in investing in the Indian Railways. This would be in line with the policy of the NDA II government to allow up to 49 per cent FDI / private investment in the Railways. As a leading vercular Daily from Guwahati has indicated, soon the country is likely to have trains like, Ambani Express, Reliance Inter City, and possibly many more in the me of leading corporate / business groups or industrialists/businessmen, because of the stress laid on ‘public-private cooperation’ or ‘private cooperation’ models.
Assam has witnessed great discontentment since Thursday, in the form of protest rallies, demonstrations, burning of effigies of the Prime Minister, Railways minister etc., over non- inclusion of some key projects, based on long-standing demands of the people. Such demands include completion of Double B.G. tracks from Bongaigaon to Guwahati via Rangia for which Rs.1,798 crore was provided in 2013-14 Budget, and from Guwahati to Dibrugarh / Tinsukia, second Rail cum Road Bridge at Guwahati just parallel to the present Saraighat bridge over the Brahmaputra, conversion of all Metre Gauge Lines or Tracks to Broad Gauge as done in the rest of mainland India, completion of all non-completed projects including Bogi-beel Bridge, Lumding-Badarpur B.G. Track within the fixed time-frame, conversion of diesel to electric trains throughout Assam in a phased manner as done elsewhere in the country, introduction of super-fast trains to and from Assam as done between Delhi-Mumbai, Delhi-Kolkata, Mumbai-Ahmedabad, Delhi-Cheni etc., construction of railway wagon manufacturing facility at Bongaigaon, policy declaration for recruitment to Grade III and Grade IV vacancies in the North Eastern Railway (NER) from candidates of the North-eastern States only, exclusion of North Bengal and parts of Bihar from the jurisdiction of N.E. Railway, construction of Rail Over-bridge over all busy level crossings in Guwahati and elsewhere in the State and also Sub-ways wherever feasible, extension of Railway lines to other unconnected towns / rural clusters in Assam and to the State capitals of other NE States; setting up of Railway-based ancillary and other manufacturing facilities, training for skill development by setting up suitable Training Institutes in the Region, and so on.
While it is appreciated that, the Railways minister spoke of special attention being given for development of infrastructure in the North-eastern states, we would like that, the long-standing genuine demands as highlighted, are fulfilled over a time-frame, in tune with the announcements made from time to time, by Prime Minister rendra Modi for development of the region. Similarly, adequate fund-provision should be made and definite action plans drawn up for implementation of projects already sanctioned since 2012- 13 or earlier, e.g. New Bongaigaon- Rangia- Kamakhya (Guwahati) Double BG Track, New Bongaigaon- Goalpara- Guwahati Double BG Track, Goods Train Termil at Azara, Passengers’ Seat Reservation Networking under NE Railways., Double BG Track from Digaru to Hojai, conversion of manual rail gates to electrical rail gates etc. We also suggest that, all the 14 MPs from Assam and also the Northeast MPs Forum, as also the chief ministers of the eight States, would appropriately take up the ‘pending demands’ along with the new issues with the Railways minister and the Prime Minister.