New Delhi, February 25: Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu is set to present his maiden budget for the department on Thursday amid expectations of a clear roadmap to re-energise one of the largest railroad networks in the world that's been floundering in recent decades due to a mix of political populism, lack of vision and funds crunch.
The latest railway budget evokes particular interest as it comes six months after Prime Minister rendra Modi's government allowed 100 percent foreign equity in some big-ticket projects of the railways, promising it to be a game-changer for the 162-year-old network, that transports goods and passengers with an eye on social obligations.
Yet, one aspect of the budget is a foregone conclusion - there will be no lowering of fares. "It won't be done. Fares are already low and government is giving subsidy," Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sinha said a week ago, echoing what his senior minister has been maintaining all along.
An across-the-board hike has also been ruled out by some senior officials, given the near 15-percent increase in passenger fares and 6.5 percent in freight last year. So it will be interesting to watch how the railway minister proposes to raise money, given the limitations of market borrowings.
Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu has also rejected the idea of a reduction in passenger fares consequent to the lowering of diesel prices following the steep decline in intertiol crude oil rates.
A vision statement on utilization of surplus land with Indian Railways is also much anticipated.
The latest rail budget comes at a time when its finces and efficiency are, perhaps, at their worst - as measured by a common parameter, the operating ratio. It suggests how much money is spent on day-to-day operations to earn the revenues, giving an indication of the funds left for safety and expansion.
For the record, India boasts one of the oldest and the largest railroad networks in the world, ferrying some 23 million people, or a population the size of Australia, as also 2.65 million tonnes of goods on its coaches each day. IANS