A beaming Lalu Prasad arrived in Parliament equipped with a briefcase that contained perhaps the finest set of numbers to be reported by any railway minister in India, and an oratorial skill that has seldom failed to captivate listeners.
While presenting his fourth Railway Budget, Prasad was however forced to rely on sheer lung power to be heard. Members of the Opposition, especially the NDA, shouted slogans continuously in the well of the House, demanding that the budget not be read and only laid in Parliament. Instead, they wanted the Parliament to debate the extradition of Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, an accused in the Bofors payoff case, who was under arrest in Argentina.
Not to be outshouted, Prasad denounced the government’s detractors as ‘anti-poor’ and persisted with his 31-page speech, even as members of SP staged a walkout some 20 minutes into the hour-long speech. The Opposition, on its part, dismissed the railway minister’s positive characterisation of the budget. As did the CPI(M), which is supporting the government from outside.
The CPI(M)’s Basudeb Acharya, also chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on railways, dismissed the proposed cut in passenger fares as a mere ‘token reduction’. Acharya further said the railway minister should have withdrawn the surcharge levied last year on account of mere reclassification of ‘express’ trains as ‘superfast’ trains.
“The budget could have utilised the profits much better,” added CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury, and raised concerns over increasing private participation. “This year’s budget has missed the chance to consolidate, in augmenting rolling stock, for instance. It also invites private participation in not only construction but also maintenance, which is directly related to safety.”
Prasad’s immediate predecessor in Rail Bhawan and political rival, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, raised the issue of safety as well. Kumar said the increase in volume of traffic without taking substantial steps to sustain the axle-load would prove to be “dangerous” for the railways.
He said the increase in axle-load on account of rise in volume of traffic was in ‘violation’ of the recommendations of safety committees constituted by the railways. Kumar also said the decrease in accidents during the current fiscal resulted from the safety fund of Rs17,000 crore created during his tenure.
BJP’s V.K. Malhotra also voiced concern over the impact of proposed overloading on railway tracks.
Malhotra denounced the budgetary proposals as just “jugglery of words” and cuts in passenger fares as ‘notional’. He said fares had actually been raised last year, through an increase in reservation charges, besides reclassifying trains. Malhotra further said the budget failed to address key infrastructure issues, including the paucity of railway lines and unmanned gates.
Prasad utilized his customary post-budget interaction with the media to attack the NDA as much as to defend his proposals.
He reminded that, in 2001, the railways was not in a position to pay any dividend to its employees. Nitish Kumar later clarified that the railways had managed to pay a Rs3,000 crore dividend in 2002-03. Prasad said the 14 lakh-plus staff of the railways would get 65 days’ salary as bonus for 2006-07.
Talking to Mint, Prasad clarified there was no plan to go in for another mid-year hike in freight rates as he has been quietly doing in the past few years to boost revenues. As first reported by Mint on 22 February, the railways earned Rs700 crore extra in the current fiscal by increasing freight rates on some commodities, a practice that is something new for the Railways as it typically sets its rates in the annual budget.