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Darkness at the end of the tunnel

Darkness at the end of the tunnel

The railway budget presented by Mamata Banerjee last year was one of intent, hope, promises although it lacked a concrete action plan to achieve the lady’s audacious dream—25,000km of new railway line, 12,000km of doubling and another 12,000km of gauge conversion, 14,000km of modernization, new production units for rolling stock (wagons and coaches), and the modernization of existing railway stations, workshops and other infrastructure.

This year’s rail budget seems to indicate that Banerjee’s Railonomics has become a journey to nowhere. As she showers largesse on her home state West Bengal, where elections are due this year, all Indian Railways and the people of India can look forward to is the dawning reality of darkness at the end of the railway tunnel.

It came as a surprise to no one that the rail budget for 2011-12 followed the conventional dictum of populism in an election year; still, optimists were looking for a plan in the numbers to improve the condition of the railways. Sadly, such optimism is difficult to sustain after reading the fine print of a budget which conceals far more than it reveals.

This columnist would have been reasonably satisfied, even ecstatic, had the minister and members of the Railway Board been more forthcoming on the following:

One, is the annual statement of accounts, as presented in the budget, a true and fair picture of the financial health of the railways? It is no secret that railway finances are in distress and the minister generously admitted this at the beginning of her budget speech. Still, the great Indian rope trick of exchequer control, window dressing, lesser appropriation in the funds than what was budgeted, and lesser provisioning for dividend, all artificially reduced the operating ratio for 2010-11 to a respectable 92.1%. This is lower than the real number and will also serve to present a rosier picture than what will be really the case in 2011-12, an operating ratio of 91.1%.

Two, the new trains and routes will further crowd an already overstretched arterial rail network. The result may be more compromise on passenger safety, punctuality, and amenities.

Three, the announcement of several new projects, including new line constructions at a time when the railways is already saddled with hundreds of projects stuck in various stages, does not augur well. Both old projects and new ones will compete for scarce, maybe non-existent resources. And Indian Railways does not have a happy track record on completing projects on time and within budget.

Four, according to the Allocation of Business Rules of Government of India, as modified in 1985, urban transport is the responsibility of the ministry of urban development with the role of the railways limited to technical specifications and metro rail safety. The latest misadventure of the minister is to infringe on this area, thereby creating confusion in Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Kolkata and Bangalore, where Metro projects are already being developed jointly by the Central and state governments. This will only ensure duplication of scarce resources and create avoidable confusion and wastage.

Five, Indian Railways seems to be undertaking a massive programme of its own to create government-owned production units for rolling stock, that too in an era where it should just allow vendors to set up their own facilities for both supplying coaches and locomotives to the railways as well as developing India as a manufacturing base. A cue can be taken from the manner in which Metro car manufacturing has taken off in the country with four vendors in a short span of time. Needless to say, a bus operator does not manufacture buses and there is no reason why the railways should not move away from the existing paradigm.

Six, the thrust of the railways on social inclusion is ill-advised. It proposes do so through socially minded rail projects and creation of a dedicated non lapsable fund for socially relevant projects. This is because these should be the responsibility of some other wing of the Central government. The railways should, instead, focus on addressing through innovative financing the more serious problem of raising finances for dedicated freight corridors (east and west corridors are just the beginning), high speed passenger corridor, other infrastructure, and modernization projects.

Finally, the triumph of Bengal should not come at the cost of Indian Railways. At a time when the country faces serious rail infrastructure constraints, it has lost one more year to populism.

Akhileshwar Sahay is president (transport), Feedback Ventures and an ex-railway officer.

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