New Delhi: Railway minister Mamata Banerjee, in her second budget, left passenger fares untouched and, contrary to expectations, announced no hikes in freight tariffs either. In fact, the minister actually slashed the freight rate on foodgrains and kerosene.
In an interview, Banerjee spoke about social versus economic viability, plans to construct dedicated freight corridors and public-private partnerships, among other topics. Edited excerpts:
Social viability is a major theme you spelt out when you first became railway minister around eight months ago. But social viability at the cost of economic viability, will it work in the long run?
Pleasing all: Railway minister Mamata Banerjee. Ramesh Pathania/Mint
You see railway is a commercial organization. We have the business part. And it is a social organization as well. When there is a drought, where there is a natural disaster—I remember the tsunami days and the earthquake days when there was an earthquake in Gujarat—railway used to carry the freight free of cost because railway is the lifeline of the nation. We have some social commitment also.
You are talking about public-private partnership and you are also talking about privatization that ought to be introduced in the railways. How do the two fit in?
I am very happy (that) whatever we are doing, we are not going for privatization of the railways. But at the same time, how do we earn money? Only (through) passengers’ money, is it possible to increase the railway line, only from the freight corridor money...can we go (in) for new infrastructure? No, we cannot.
That is why land is our asset... What is not required for operational purposes... that land, if we give that land and private investment can come (in), they can set up their industry.
How will you find such free land within the freight corridor area?
...after I joined this ministry, I set up a land bank... There is 103,000 acres that we have earmarked for development. From that we are giving 21,000 acres of land for (the) dedicated freight corridor.
...we are not corporatizing or privatizing the railways...But to earn more revenue, to increase more infrastructure, to go for new route kilometres, to go for a new lifeline, we have to utilize our...land. And from that area, we are going to set up a new business model.
That business model is—from new line to port connectivity, new line to coal mines connectivity, new line to industrial hub connectivity, new line to IT (information technology) hub connectivity, new line to tourism connectivity....
Business is ready, infrastructure is ready, model is ready, economy is ready... So I will request the industry houses to come, join, invest your money...
Are a water bottling plant and museums the core areas of the railways?
Yes. Why not? These days we have to go for competition. Do you know the price? Rs12, but some people, for competition, are offering for Rs5. If you want to give cheap clean water to the passengers, don’t you go for competition?
So there is a need to go for that, it is a new business area and of course it would be successful.
With regards to museums, please realize we have 14 lakh employees, do you think that they will only work day and night with no cultural activities, no music and no football and no play, no academy?
Former railway minister Lalu Prasad has said again that you have done too much for West Bengal.
I have done for Marora, Madhepura, Nalanda, Bodh Gaya, Chapra (all in Bihar). I love Bihar.
If I don’t give to Bihar, the Biharis would beat me because many Biharis are staying in my area... You can never satisfy everyone, but you can satisfy some, and we have satisfied 99%.
But you agree you have done something more for West Bengal?
I have done for all. I have also given to other cities like Bangalore, Chennai, etc.
There was so much emphasis on poet Rabindranath Tagore in your speech today?
The 150th (birth) anniversary (of Tagore) is coming, what to do?
So, is Tagore going to be a cultural symbol for Trinamool Congress also in the days to come?
It is a world heritage symbol. Tagore is not my property, it is country’s property and I am proud to say in the anthem, “Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha…” So this shows he was known by all.
Home minister P. Chidambaram has made it absolutely clear that he is not willing to talk to the Maoists as long as they come in unconditionally. What do you have to say about?
I don’t know anything about this; they (home ministry) will take the decision.
I always think that there must be some political negotiation and democratic negotiation and instead of using arms, I want peace.
There is a focus also on these Maoist areas in the budget which you are trying to develop?
I have given so many development things to Telangana region and even Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, everywhere, wherever negligence is there.