The Left is planning to wave the red flag at Indian Railways for trying to inject heavy doses of private investment through public-private partnerships (PPPs).
“We are concerned,” Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member Sitaram Yechury told Mint on the sidelines of the India Engineering Trade Fair. “The railways has been in good health in recent times and has improved its surplus. When the railways is making a profit, it should plough back a share of the surplus into projects instead of turning to the private sector.”
Yechury said the railways should not set itself targets for attracting private investment. “Public-private partnerships have become an obsession for the railways. Are they necessary?” he asked. The railways has indicated that the ministry will seek Rs73,000 crore from the private sector in the next five years.
According to Yechury, the Left will ask the railways to tone down its partnerships programme. “We will take it up during a (United Progressive Alliance government) coordination meeting,” said Yechury.
These partnership projects enable the private sector to share funds and resources with the government in building infrastructure. In turn, the private companies earn income from these assets by charging the end-users.
“Some functions such as provision of bed-rolls on trains have been passed on to private contractors and there is no problem with that,” D. Raja of the Communist Party of India (CPI) said. “But the core function (running trains) of railways should not be placed in the hands of private parties.”
Raja also said that partnerships have to be clearly defined. “What will not be open for private investment must be made clear, too,” he added.
If the Left decides to make a point of preserving the Indian Railways’ socially-relevant image, Union railways minister Lalu Prasad’s plans may prove tougher still to pull through. Smaller Left parties such as the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) already view demands to free up railway resources and land assets to generate additional funds as insidious.
“The railways do not need to be privatized at all in our view. We believe that the expectation that the railways should monetize all its assets, such as land along the tracks, is not economically feasible. The public-private investment route must be utilized carefully,” said Abani Roy, RSP leader and member of Parliament.