Fiscal constraints fail to curb populist ambitions

Fiscal constraints fail to curb populist ambitions
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First Published: Sat, Jul 04 2009. 12 21 AM IST

 Reforms agenda: Rail minister Mamata Banerjee announced 57 new train routes in her budget for 2009-10. Raj Kumar / Mint
Reforms agenda: Rail minister Mamata Banerjee announced 57 new train routes in her budget for 2009-10. Raj Kumar / Mint
Updated: Sat, Jul 04 2009. 12 21 AM IST
New Delhi: Taking a cue from her predecessor Lalu Prasad, and in tune with the ruling United Progressive Alliance’s inclusive approach, railway minister Mamata Banerjee has opted for populism in her budget for 2009-10.
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Banerjee took it up from where she left off during the election campaign for the 15th Lok Sabha and revived her evocative slogan—maa, maati, manush (mother, land, people)—to underline the socialist underpinnings of the Railway Budget.
Prasad had introduced air-conditioned trains called Garib Rath (literally, poor man’s chariot) aimed at migrating labourers in the 2005-06 rail budget. Banerjee, in turn, has announced Yuva trains—air-conditioned trains for the youth.
“The new low-priced, fast trains service will be started to connect youth in rural hinterlands to major cities. The trains will provide air-conditioned, seated accommodation,” Banerjee told Parliament while presenting the Railway Budget for the fiscal year to March 2010. These trains will run distances between 1,000km and 2,500km. Fares will range between Rs299 and Rs399, she said.
Banerjee also announced suburban trains that would ferry only women during peak commuting hours in Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata. Prasad in the last year’s budget had raised the discount for senior women citizens to 50% from 30%. Banerjee also announced 57 new train routes, compared with Prasad launching 53.
Reforms agenda: Rail minister Mamata Banerjee announced 57 new train routes in her budget for 2009-10. Raj Kumar / Mint
The railway minister said suburban trains with journey duration exceeding 2 hours would now have washrooms. Prasad last year had announced introducing discharge-free toilets on long-haul routes.
Banerjee also introduced mobile ticketing vans and ticket counters in 5,000 post offices.
The railway minister has fulfilled her pre-budget promise of making it a pro-people budget, said Kuljit Singh, partner, infrastructure, real estate and government, at consultancy firm Ernst and Young.
“Significant emphasis has been laid on providing better social facilities for the aam aadmi (common man),” Singh said. “And in a recessionary environment, both passenger and freight fares have been left unaltered.”
For the poor, Banerjee announced a new scheme named Izzat (dignity), under which concessional monthly tickets will be sold to people with a monthly income of up to Rs1,500 in the unorganized sector at a subsidized rate of Rs25 for travel up to 100km. “I wish to present the gift of travel with dignity to even the poorest of the poor,” she said.
In another populist move, she extended a students’ concession to those studying in madrasas, or muslim seminaries.
Banerjee also revised the railways’ tatkal scheme for last-?minute bookings by reducing the booking period from five to two days before the date of journey and reducing the minimum charge levied on such tickets to Rs100 from Rs150.
To compete with low-cost air services, the minister introduced non-stop trains on routes that include New Delhi and Jammu Tawi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad, and Kolkata and Amritsar.
She also announced a slew of welfare measures aimed at railway employees that include seven nursing colleges on railway land, scholarship for higher education of girl children, construction of at least 6,500 staff quarters and attaching medical colleges to railway hospitals.
For journalists, Banerjee raised concession to 50% from 30%, and introduced an additional 50% discount to a spouse once a year, if they travel together.
The Railway Budget is more reformist than populist, said Gaurav Dua, head of research at Sharekhan Ltd, a domestic brokerage.
“Rather than giveaways in (the) form of lower passenger tariffs, the focus is on productive utilization of spare land and (to) develop railway infrastructure under the public-private participation model,” Dua said. “No increase in freight tariffs is also positive for many core sectors like steel, cement, etc.”
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First Published: Sat, Jul 04 2009. 12 21 AM IST