In his fifth and possibly last annual budget before the next general election, railway minister Lalu Prasad triumphantly announced a slew of concessions in passenger fares and unveiled more than five dozen new trains.
Amid loud and growing discontent among a large section of his listeners in Parliament, including those from the Left parties that lend a critical support to the government, the minister announced a 5% reduction in passenger fares above Rs50 in all non-suburban second-class compartments of ordinary and express trains and a Re1 discount for fares up to Rs50.
More incentives: Passengers at the New Delhi railway station. Prasad announced a 5% cut in passenger fares of Rs50 and more for all non-suburban, second-class compartments of ordinary and express trains. (Photo: Rajeev Dabral/ Mint)
Along with several initiatives to improve passenger amenities, the minister unveiled a 7% cut in AC (air-conditioned) first-class fares, 4% cut in AC 2-tier, 2% cut in AC 3-tier fares, 50% concession in second-class passenger fares for AIDS patients and a 50% discount for women senior citizens.
Even as Jayanti Natarajan, a spokesperson of the Congress party, later hailed the proposals “people-friendly and growth-oriented”, the Left parties as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) staged a walkout towards the end of the 100-minute speech, even before the minister could announce the reduction in passenger fares.
While the Left parties objected to the proposals “aimed at back-door privatization,” members of the NDA were furious at what they termed “wilful neglect” of the opposition-ruled states.
“This is an out and out political budget, which is meant to appear to give concessions to every class of passengers and create a sense of well-being” Yashwant Sinha, a former finance minister and a Rajya Sabha member of the BJP, told Mint. “However, if you look closely, you will find there is much less to the concessions on offer than meets the eye. As has become a habit with the railway minister, what he gives with one hand, he will take away with the other.”
V.K. Malhotra, deputy leader of the BJP in the Lok Sabha, said the cut in fares will be more than offset by the hike in charges for reservations, cancellations or change in nomenclature of trains from mail or express to superfast.
Gurudas Dasgupta, leader of the Communist Party of India in the Lok Sabha, said the Left parties were completely disappointed as the budget had little for the common man. “It is a budget for privatization, as it talks about raising Rs1 lakh crore globally through PPP (public-private partnership), for manufacturing coaches and wagons, and even for signalling. It is a budget for the affluent middle class, with a cut in AC fares, but nothing for unreserved coaches or suburban passengers. There is no commitment on filling up the vacancies in the railways either.”
More than the specifics of fares, though, the routes of the 10 new Garib Raths (trains for the poor) and 53 other trains appeared to divide members of Parliament along regional lines.
Even as Dasgupta lamented the “step-motherly treatment” meted out to West Bengal, for instance, members of the Left parties from Kerala appeared reluctant to walk out after Prasad announced a coach factory for their state.
Addressing the media after the speech, the minister said there was always room for course correction and invited the Left parties to discuss their grievances with him. However, he signalled that PPP was an integral part of his policy, as he clarified that he couldn’t fund projects out of his own pocket. He said each project had to be cleared by the Planning Commission, which could do so only if it was deemed viable.
“If the numbers do add up, a reduction in fares shouldn’t be seen in just political terms, especially when we are talking about a minister who has slashed freight rates as well and turned around the railways,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based non-partisan think tank. “Here is a minister who has boldly invited private participation and leveraged the assets of the railways... He has actually made the railways viable and credible once again.”