Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav has presented a feel good budget and laid the track for a full-blown election talk. He has announced concessions across the board, no increase in freight charges and a cut for all classes of passenger fares. Seen as an effective political manoeuvre, in the form of concessions to elderly women, students, service personnel and upgradation of porters as other Group D employees. All new rail roads leading to Bihar, Lalu has served his electoral constituency well. Lalu has accomplished in the process, which no other Railway Minister in the past could, present the railway budget for the fifth time without fare hike. He has plans for modernisation and private participation in a big way. That will keep the globalisation lobby happy. Railways will attract investment in a big way. All this, experts say, is fudging of data and whole lot of hogwash. Lalu is clever.
Like it or not, Lalu has brought a paradigm shift. For many years before him Railway was a neglected area, a parking sanctuary for heavyweight politicians to satisfy their bloated ego trip. Lalu made a difference with his passion for power and common touch. That he remembered the human side of the mammoth public sector behemoth speaks of the politician in him. For the country on fast-track globalisation it may not mean much that he upgraded the service of the lowest strata of the railway men or that he made marginal difference in fare rates or that he thought of making railways competing profitably with low-priced airlines and tried to reduce the burden on road transport.
Before Lalu, Rail budget used to be a virtual auditing effort, with every new budget a loss-making Railways routinely increasing passenger fare and freight charges. That Lalu thought of finding other means of increasing revenue is commendable. Finance Ministers in the country who keep on fighting deficit by overburdening the taxpayers can learn a few lessons from Lalu'sexperiment. But has he ensured the economic health of the Railways? Critics doubt his tall claims of profitability and big talk.
One economic paper derisively commented that the benefit for passengers is too minor to make an impact; travelling 2000 km will get cheaper by Rs 14. They have a point. It is said that most of the promises he made in the earlier budgets are yet to be realised. The problem is Lalu is considered to be a politician who makes more noise, and does little. He was a monumental failure as Bihar Chief Minister. So there is the huge credibility gap.
That the Railways has to take more care of passenger amenities, that safety has become a major concern, that on board theft and thuggery have recorded an all time high in recent months are other worries the Railway Minister has to address. But the innovations and charm Lalu has brought into the Railway budget circus over the years have made it the country'slargest profit-maker. He has shown that cheap fares can increase volume, which will increase traffic revenue. He also did not resort to the archaic idea of playing the gentleman thief, and rob Peter to pay Paul. He introduced many new trains and took up expansion plans by tapping internal resources. He has really done something for the common man and proved definitely the only minister in UPA cabinet who has made a mark.