The earthly Ma Mati Manush Mamata Banerjee was expected to bring in the people’s vision into her budget. She has unfortunately got into the bureaucratic trap and the innovation she might have in her mind has been lost. She got enamoured in high speed but low achievement syndrome – bureaucratic malaise afflicting the railways for decades. She has made a candid admission that there was nothing hunky dory during the last five years by promising to bring in a White Paper for the period. She also called previous Railway Minister Lalu Yadav’s projection as unrealistically high and pointed out at least one Rs 3400 crore public-private partnership (PPP) was only for the purpose of publicity and so she had to give it up.
The revenue projections have also been reduced from the interim budget projections, which under pressure from Lalu Yadav did not take notice of the slowdown in loading of goods to two per cent of the target last fiscal, said member Traffic of Railway Board Sri Prakash. Consequently gross revenue projections have been reduced to Rs 88,419 crore from Rs 93,159 crore of the interim budget. Overall surplus has also been brought down to Rs 2,642 crore from 5,572 crore of the interim budget.
Of course, railways borrowings and central budgetary support have increased to Rs 15,800 crore, an increase of Rs 5,000 crore from the interim budget. In such a situation, instead of announcing new trains, many of which are often not introduced, she could have taken a pique at trains like the pride of 1950s –Janata Express. It was a new classless fast train with the latest cabin type coaches, a first those days. The train still runs, a favourite of the poor, but is in a ramshackle state. No railway minister has ever taken an interest in it. Even earthly Mamata missed the opportunity to revive Janata and similar other trains. The railways do not need to play gimmick by reintroducing all that is there but strengthen what it has with it.
The Tatkal scheme has been streamlined a bit but it has not been reduced to Rs 100 as her speech mentions. It is Rs 100 for Sleeper class and Rs 200 for air conditioned as fixed charges plus there would be 10 and 15 per cent surcharge on basis of the fare. Her speech also does not indicate that the seats in this category would be reduced. She needs to make a clear departure from Lalu Yadav’s unethical convoluted Tatkal system. There is little in her Durant non-stop trains. Non-stop Sampark Kranti was introduced by the NDA railway minister Nitish Kumar. Mamata should have reviewed the technical and track capacity of the railways before introducing so-called new trains. She should have ensured a culture of sustaining and improving what exists. Introduction of every new train has only resulted in slowing down of the existing trains including Rajdhanis and Shatabdis. In her reply, to the budget she has still the option to introduce her new vision. She has it. She only needs to push through it overlooking bureaucratic objections. She also needs to introduce hop-in and hop-out long distance trains free from harassment by railway ticket conductors.
The Yuva train also looks impractical. It is supposed to be 1500 km all-seated air conditioned train for Rs 299 and Rs 399. The youth may be strong but can anyone endure a 20-hour journey sitting all through? There are some sparks. But that is restricted to her Kolkata vision. Journalists have been agitating for years about the Basumati press, a historic institution with nostalgic connection for Bengalis during the freedom movement. Bengal’s elite was associated with it. The West Bengal government could do little but taking it over to finally virtually shut it down. Mamata’s offer to take it over for use by the railways is not only to restore the Bengali pride but also to resuscitate an institution. In Europe, many such institutions are kept alive to help the new generation have a glimpse of a living past. It is called industrial archaeology. By default Mamata may have
introduced that in this country. She wants to play some politics as well. The Basumati press is with the Bengal’s Left Front government. If they part with it, they draw flak from their cadre and if they don’t they lose popular support. Mamata is a winner either way. She has also exhibited that spark in the takeover of wagon units of Burn Standard and Braithwaite, under the ministry of heavy industries. The companies based in West Bengal are in poor health. Their closure would lead to job losses. The decision to take these over in the so-called “reforms’ – privatise and perish- era show her real concern and “mamata” for the Bengal’s poor people. She also has tried to exemplify that an elected leader rooted in grassroots can go against the lobbyist-oriented politics of “reform generation”. It would not cost the railways much but would instill hope among the poor – a real prescription to counter recession.
The eastern part has benefited least from the reforms era. Her concept of using railway land along the freight corridor as land bank to set up industry is again a clear rebuff to those propagating Nandigram type special economic zones (SEZ) or Singur-type land acquisition. How much it earns for the railways is not the issue, but creating industry on the existing land next to the freight corridor should be considered an innovative approach. It would certainly make transportation easier and cheaper if properly implemented. It could also bring in an industrial revolution in the east long stalled by the conservative socialist minded people.
The last five years had ignored wagon manufacturing sector. Now the railways has decided to acquire 18000 new wagons to replace its ageing fleet. It would give boost to the railways public sector units apart from making goods movement, often stuck by derailments caused by poor rolling stock, smoother. The PSUs that are likely to gain from her new policies are Ircon International, a turnkey infrastructure construction company, Railtel (Telecom), Rites and Indian Railway, Tourism and Catering Company (IRCTC).
The minister said that the allocation for new railway lines had been increased to Rs 2921 crore from Rs 1100 crore in the interim budget. This would apart from taking care of the safety aspects would also generate business for the sagging public sector SAIL. Mamata needs to widen her vision. She need not have robbed Bihar of the two projects to create a new coach factory at Kanchrapara in her state. Possibly she has settled the score of losing Dhanbad from the Eastern Railway. The budget has some difference but it is not different. Would she be able to revise it by the time she prepares her reply to the budget debate?
(The writer is senior economic and political affairs journalist and ex-Sr Editor, The Financial Express.)