Second budget of Mamata Banerjee in her new avatar as UPA minister brings out four fundamental questions to my mind
One, should the annual railway budget exercise, a relic of Acworth Committee Report of 1924 be given the quick burial it deserves as it has outlived its utility?
Two, if not when will this annual ritual of a railway minister playing to the gallery of his/her constituency will end?
Three, when the trade off is between economic viability and social inclusion in the context of a railway project, who should bear the cost - Indian Railways or the National Exchequer?
Four, will Indian Railways ever have a sustainable action plan which ensures its competitiveness vis-à-vis road traffic for a diversified product base? Will the dream of B. D. Pande Committee Report on National Transport Policy, 1980 of railways having 80% of the freight traffic ever come true?
And five, when will the Elephant awaken, if at all.
The railway budget for 2010-11 provides some pointers, a lot more intent but no clear way forward about where the Elephant is headed for. While recapitulating the final points of the budget towards the end, I was suddenly taken down the memory lane of a famous Tata Steel advertisement of the olden days – “we also make steel”. To me this is the sum and substance of the Railway Budget this year.
The only redeeming feature which is discernable is a categorical statement to have a task force based approach for clearing private investment proposal within hundred days. But here too, the budget fails short of a clear game changing policy enunciation which ensures that private sector investments not only in the PPP mode but also as pure private sector enterprise happens in a win-win format. The much delayed announcement of setting up of a High Speed Rail Authority makes sense but again there is no way forward and unless the authority is setup at an arms length, with clear mandate, with the right leadership and full freedom with accountability, the announcement will just remain an intent for years to come.
This budget when examined in the context of IR’s vision 2020 generates more questions than the answers. The vision document, among other things has a big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) of developing 25,000 km of new line in ten years, 12,000 km each of doubling and gauge conversion, 14,000 km of electrification apart from modernization of existing manufacturing units, setting up of new rolling stock facilities on PPP and modernization of railway workshops in dilapidated conditions. With the game changing option plan still remaining a black hole, there is substantial collateral damage to the long term sustainability of Indian Railways. Non revision of passenger fares for seventh year in a row is a typical example of willingness to pay for right services and total unwillingness to charge. This is the time for the Elephant to awaken and a clarion call to change the very way to change, with or without the ritual of the annual railway budget.