New Delhi: A strong regional focus in railway minister Lalu Prasad’s fifth budget, which might be the last before nationwide polls in 2009, has split the ranks among political parties.
At the same time, some analysts have welcomed some of the initiatives.
The budget is a careful mix of populism and pragmatism, said N. Bhanumurthy, an economist with the Institute of Economic Growth. “The railways is a lifeline of rural India and helps growth spread across the country. The new trains are not a populist step, the price cuts for first-class tickets are,” he said.
According to Prof. Bhanumurthy, in its current expansionary stage, the railways will have to keep announcing new trains every year, though the announcements this year are more ambitious.
On Tuesday, Prasad announced 10 new Garib Rath Express trains, 53 other new trains with originating stations in 15 states other than Bihar, his home state, and a new coach manufacturing facility in Palakkad, Kerala.
Last year’s budget had pro-mised eight new Garib Raths, 32 other new trains and extended 23 trains’ routes. The frequency of 14 trains was increased in Rail Budget 2007-08, while 11 trains will have greater frequency in 2008-09.
A.P. Abdullakutty, a Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) member of Parliament (MP) from Kerala, said: “For the first time in the history of rail budgets, Kerala has got very good support. Especially with the announcement of the Palakkad coach factory.”
However, Gurudas Dasgupta, a Communist Party of India leader and Lok Sabha MP, said the Left opposes the budget due to its focus on public-private partnerships (PPPs). “It’s nothing but the finance minister’s budget,” Dasgupta said. “We are strongly opposed to it and walked out of the House because of its pro-rich bias.” He said the budget did not announce enough Garib Raths and amenities for poorer passengers.
Packing a punch: Railway minister Lalu Prasad. (PTI)
Garib Raths, literally translated as “poor man’s chariots”, are long-distance trains with scaled-down amenities, except air conditioning, with tickets priced lower than in other AC trains. The 10 new trains announced on Tuesday will originate in business centres, tourist locations and migration-prone large towns and cities including Bangalore, Nagpur, Varanasi, Tirupati, Danapur (in Bihar) and Mathura.
Raj Babbar, a Samajwadi Party (SP) MP who represents Agra in the Lok Sabha, complained that none of the new trains will touch his constituency, a key tourist location. SP and Shiv Sena members staged a walkout in Parliament, along with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MPs from Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
“There was stepmotherly treatment for BJP-ruled states, particularly Gujarat,” said BJP leader and Rajya Sabha MP Yashwant Sinha. “We don’t think these announcements will pay dividends when the time comes for votes to be cast; it is too little too late.”
But not for N.N. Krishnadas, CPM MP from Palakkad. “It (the coach factory) was a dream project. At the time of creation of the Salem railway division by dividing the Palghat division, the Prime Minister assured us that a large project would be set up in return. It has now been fulfilled, so we are happy,” he said.
According to Prof. Bhanumurthy, the new trains and lines are a prized possession of every state, particularly in an election year. “However, with the railways’ cash surplus, they must focus on new lines and trains. It is always transportation that fuels the economy, and the expansion is likely to continue,” he said.