A single chart which sums up all rail budget speeches since 1947

Railways budgets have all along been more about passengers and less about freight

Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Last week, the government decided to do away with the practice of presenting a separate budget for the railways. Since independence, the rail budget has been presented 84 times and railway ministers’ speeches, including interim budgets, run into more than half-a-million words. Mint has identified the top hundred words used in the speeches—an analysis that also brings to light different priorities of rail budgets over the years.

‘New’, ‘passenger’ and ‘traffic’ were found to be the three most commonly used words in rail budget speeches between 1947 and 2016.

All speeches since independence

A word-cloud is a chart which shows the most frequently used words in a given text. The more frequently a word appears , the bigger it is in the graphic. The given charts represent the top 100 words across all speeches for each period.

To find out whether the content of the speeches reflected the changes brought in by economic reforms, we generated two separate word-clouds to cover the pre-reform (1947-1990) and post-reform (1991-2016) periods.

Pre-Liberalisation (1947 to 1990)

Post-Liberalisation (1991 to 2016)

‘Traffic’ , ‘coal’ and ‘development’ were the most commonly used words in the pre-reform period. Other words that occurred most frequently were ‘gauge’, ‘staff’ and ‘plan’.

In the post-reform period, ‘express’ is the most common word. It is closely followed by ‘new’. The word ‘reform’ is not to be seen in the top 100 words of the post-reform period.

The analysis has excluded certain words such as ‘crore’, ‘railway’, ‘speech’, ‘budget’, ‘sir’, ‘madam’ and ‘year’.

The dominance of the word ‘new’ in the post-reform period must mean new trains, as there has been little expansion of railway tracks in India. Data provided by the Centre for Monitoring of Indian Economy (CMIE) shows that the length of railway tracks increased just 1.1 times between 1970-71 and 2014-15.

An interesting contrast can be found in the use of the words ‘passenger/passengers’ and ‘freight’, with the former mentioned far more frequently. The ratio of the number of times the words ‘passenger/passengers’ and ‘freight’ are mentioned is 1.9 and 1.8 in the pre-reform and post-reform periods respectively. The slight change does not mean that freight was given priority over passenger traffic post reforms. In fact , the reverse seems to be true.

A report by a committee chaired by economist Bibek Debroy on resource mobilisation and reforms for railways shows that railways have been increasingly passing the burden of subsidised passenger travel to freight operations.

A comparison of data from the pre-liberalisation period with the current times in the report shows that passenger traffic only generates half of its costs, while freight operations have a huge mark-up over per unit cost incurred by the railways.

Many experts have pointed out that uncompetitive rates have led to the railways losing out on significant volumes of freight traffic.

Cross-subsidisation of passenger traffic might be a bigger economic burden on the railways than operating trains on economically unviable routes, as is commonly believed. Data provided by the CMIE shows that losses from unviable lines have not cost the railways more than 2% of its traffic earnings since the 1980s.

The analysis above shows that prioritization of the railway’s interests has not been a virtue of successive railway budgets. It is believed that putting an end to the practice of doling out sops by misusing railway budgets would help the beleaguered Indian railways come back on track.

Commentators have appreciated railway minister Suresh Prabhu’s move to voluntarily downsize the importance of his ministry by doing away with a separate railway budget.

Not everybody is gung-ho about the decision though. A former member of the Railway Board has expressed apprehensions that doing away with a separate rail budget could reduce transparency of railway operations and suggested that a separate report should be released annually to address this concern.

It would be interesting to see how the government handles these concerns as it moves to reform India’s largest public sector enterprise.

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