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Interim Rail Budget — A shunting job by Nitish

R. C. Acharya

The Railway Minister, Mr Nitish Kumar, has neither taxed passengers nor offered them goodies, except a set of new trains, in his Interim Rail Budget, but it is far from an effort that will transform the milch cow into a `race-horse' of which its one billion owners will be proud, says R. C. Acharya.

WITH this `On Account' Railway Budget, the curtains have been brought down on ten years of lost opportunity to grow by leaps and bounds on the strong foundations and systems built over the last half a century and to make the behemoth more than capable of carrying the one-billion nation into the 21st Century.

The Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, having generously provided a Rs 17,000-crore Special Railway Safety Fund (SRSF) and a Rs 15,000-crore dollop for the Rail Vikas Nigam to strengthen the Golden Quadrilateral and diagonals more than a year ago, had ensured that there would be no hike in passenger fares or freight tariff. In any case such a move in a poll year would have been political hara kiri, which the Railway Minister, Mr Nitish Kumar, would have been in no mood to commit.

As much as Rs 500 crore has been provided for building two new bridges over the Ganga — one at Patna and the other at Munger — and one on the Brahmaputra, at Bogibeel; the projects were announced in the Rail Budget last year. In addition to this, Rs 300 crore is expected to be raised from the market.

The usual plethora of goodies to `win friends and influence people' — in this case, the MPs and MLAs who will shortly try their luck once again in the coming elections — may be missing, but 18 new trains under the brand name of Sampark Kranti Expresses, to connect various State capitals to New Delhi, more than make up, adding to the `feel good' factor.

The list also includes a train connecting the national capital to Kathgodam, and is appropriately called the Uttaranchal Express, which should please the people of that State no end!

Brushing aside all suggestions to review the outstanding projects, which he had himself listed out in his now famous `White Paper on Railway Projects' presented to the Lok Sabha in July 1998, Mr Nitish Kumar has gone a step further in committing that the Railways will complete all of them in the next five years. For this he now proposes to form another corporation — RARSY, or the Remote Area Rail Sampark Yojana — which will take care of Rs 20,000 crore worth of projects that may not be completed by the National Vikas Rail Yojana.

Curiously, there has been no mention of any inputs in the vital area of Metro projects in the major cities for which a whopping Rs 443 crore was provided last year and which included multiplayer funding for the Mumbai Urban Transport Project.

The Special Railway Safety Fund (SRSF) was set up in October 2001 to carry out safety-related works in a time-frame of six financial years.

A large chunk was to be spent on track renewal, and Mr Nitish Kumar expects about 8,500 km of track (of the proposed 16,600 km) to be completed by the end of this financial year, though it is a moot point if this will have any major impact on the rate of accidents due to track conditions, for around 20,000 km of defective rails still remain in service.

Realising the futility of the Railways trying to compete with the air sector, there was no proposal to reduce the upper-class, in particular the first class air-conditioned fares. In any case, this would not have had much impact as those who can afford to and are pressed for time would still prefer to travel by air, at least for long distances.

Moreover, while income from the upper class passengers is about 22 per cent of total passenger earnings, that from the First A/C category is only a minuscule portion of the overall earnings. However, incentives for loyal rail travellers — something on the lines of the frequent flyer schemes — has been proposed.

Mr Nitish Kumar has attempted to leverage the country's competence in information technology by proposing a pilot project of e-ticketing on select Shatabdi Express trains; reservations through mobile telephones, and

providing information about delayed departure of Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Jan Shatabdi trains through SMS.

In the last half century of its chequered history since Independence, the Rail Mantralaya has had quite a few trailblazers occupying the seat of power.

Starting with Gopalswami Ayyangar, who accomplished the complicated task of re-organising the scores of government, State and private companies into seven zones, which were increased to nine and now 17 by a stroke of pen.

T. A. Pai provided a banker's approach to laying down broad investment policies, while Madhu Dandavate gave new dignity to its 1.7 million workforce by refraining from any form of political interference.

Undoubtedly, to Mr George Fernandes goes the credit for creation of the 720-km Konkan Railway, connecting Mumbai to Mangalore along the west coast and cutting down in half the transit time from Kochi to Mumbai, a factor which enabled him to persuade Kerala to chip in with funds though the new track ended up in Mangalore.

The active participation of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka with finances and other facilities set the precedent for developing such projects in the backward areas.

Of course, the late Madhav Rao Scindia created a niche for himself by his dynamic and visionary approach. His major achievements included the CRS, or the Computerised Reservation System, the largest of its kind in the world, issuing more than 700,000 tickets a day from over 600 stations and 6,000 terminals; inter-city trains in the form of Shatabdi Expresses; and giving Concor (Container Corpration) a boost that would see the Railways winning back small traffic from the road sector.

Interestingly, Mr Nitish Kumar, in his first stint as the Railways Minister, made a promising start by identifying the problems facing him in the form of a Status Paper on Indian Railways discussing some `Issues and Options' in May 1998, followed by a `White Paper on Railway Projects'.

The latter brought out a complete list of projects, more than 90 per cent of which were unremunerative. His honest attempt to get the Members of the Lok Sabha to debate on both the papers, however, found no takers.

Cleaning the corruption-ridden Railway Recruitment Boards all over India was another bold initiative by Mr Nitish Kumar that has so far stood the test of time and paid rich dividends.

However in his second avatar, last year, Mr Nitish Kumar succumbed to populist pressures and chose to fracture the command-and-control systems of the Railways by creating eight new Zones against all sane advise, a traumatic and infructuous exercise which the Railways would take years to get over.

Now, with the Interim Rail Budget, he has promised the nation the `moon' — a promise he would find extremely difficult to keep, and if he does not, the new incumbent will find equally difficult to disown.

Hopefully, the coming polls will throw up a face who can start off on the urgent task of giving the Railways a new sense of direction and priority to occupy its rightful place as the backbone of 4economy.

While the last decade saw the Indian Railways, the nation's `beast of burden' being turned into a `milch cow,' hopefully the next decade will see it transformed into a `race-horse' which its one billion owners will be proud of for years to come!

(The author is a former Member — Mechanical — Railway Board.)

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