ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Railways : Twisted Tracks

When the arithmetic is all done and the rhetoric has worn out, what emerges is an annual plan for the railways, not directed at growth but increasing distress. All the current signals are that railway minister Mamata Banerjee’s attempts to garner popular support through gimmickry is likely to boomerang. She has over the last two years constructed tracks, which will lead the railways to increasing disarray and oblivion. Even the moderately budget-literate members of her constituencies – the ordinary Indian who is being provided with “travel opportunity” at “affordable rates” and the housewives whose budget has been spared any increase due to hike in freight charges on salt, grains and pulses, sugar, fruits and vegetables, urea, edible oil, kerosene and LPG – will realise that running an enterprise like the railways requires an adequate income for overall, long-term development. Banerjee’s ‘housewife’ will know that if one is not to become dependent on the local moneylender, resources have to be generated in-house no matter how difficult that may sound. Such wisdom has not come the way of the railway minister.

When the arithmetic is all done and the rhetoric has worn out, what emerges is an annual plan for the railways, not directed at growth but increasing distress. All the current signals are that railway minister Mamata Banerjee's attempts to garner popular support through gimmickry is likely to boomerang. She has over the last two years constructed tracks, which will lead the railways to increasing disarray and oblivion. Even the moderately budget-literate members of her constituencies – the ordinary Indian who is being provided with "travel opportunity" at "affordable rates" and the housewives whose budget has been spared any increase due to hike in freight charges on salt, grains and pulses, sugar, fruits and vegetables, urea, edible oil, kerosene and LPG – will realise that running an enterprise like the railways requires an adequate income for overall, long-term development. Banerjee's 'housewife' will know that if one is not to become dependent on the local moneylender, resources have to be generated in-house no matter how difficult that may sound. Such wisdom has not come the way of the railway minister.

She has in her speech gloated over the fact that despite refraining from increasing passenger fares last year, passenger earnings by December 2000 were all of 10 per cent higher than in the last year. And this she attributes to the railways' efforts to draw passengers and the general improvement in services and amenities. This is hardly an increase worth mentioning, especially when it derives from an inconsequentially small increase in the number of passengers. There seems to be no comprehension of the fact that the railways in one category are competing with increasingly inviting road travel – in private and public vehicles – which will grow sharply with the new automobile policy and the finance minister's blessings. Railway passengers in any case pay only 60 per cent of the actual cost of rail travel, the rest being cross-subsidised. The subsidy in the current budget has been calculated to be more than what the railways will need to borrow from the market in order to finance its Rs 11,090 crore plan, with budgetary support from the general exchequer remaining at Rs 3,540 crore. The plan is 11 per cent bigger than in 2000-2001, expenses are higher by 8.5 per cent and revenues are Rs 512 crore less than the budgeted figure. But the minister is hopeful, as she was last year, of revenue realisation from 'sundry' or non-traditional sources, which however has fallen short of the target set for the year. Not surprisingly market borrowings are up by 15 per cent at Rs 4,000 crore. Banerjee's attempts to effect savings – to the tune of Rs 850 crore this year and targeted at Rs 865 crore next year – are evident under all heads except on rolling stock. But whether it is laudable to spend less than budgeted under all heads including those directly bearing on the safety of railway travel is a moot question.

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