IF empty, slack and open-ended promises are the key to the political power, then Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee has left all politicians miles behind.
In the Railway Budget for 2010-11, she has done aplenty to not only capture power in West Bengal but also at the Centre. The only hitch is that voters are not fools. They distinguish harsh and hard facts from grandiose promises sooner or later.
The aam adami knows that Mamata has not only promised the moon but has also offered old wine in the new bottle. Her penchant to indulge in political rhetoric has overshadowed a few good initiatives that she proposed in her budget speech.
The Railways is the economy’s core infrastructure. It is a serious business. It ought not to be trivialised to a mere platform for vote mongering.
At a time when the Railways is roping in a private partner to operate and manage the super-specialty wings of its Central hospital at Patna under a revenue-sharing arrangement, it is difficult to stomach the announcement that the Railways would set-up 522 hospitals and diagnostic centres on its surplus land. Not even the most ambitious Indian private healthcare company has ever dreamt of such targets so far!
Mamata also wants to set up 50 Kendriya Vidyalayas, 10 residential schools on the pattern of Narvodaya Vidyalaya, model degree colleges and “technical and management institutions of national importance” on the surplus railway land.
It would have been better if she had done her homework including preparation of feasibility report mentioning expenditure, timelines and the mode in which all such projects are to be set-up.
She has conveniently overlooked the fact that she is a member of the UPA Government, which has not yet set-up community kitchens, a promise that UPA lead partner Congress made in the last year’s Lok Sabha polls.
What stops her from setting up such kitchens for the dying hungry and malnourished people at such land till the healthcare dream takes wing? Setting of kitchens under tents does not require elaborate planning. It does not cost much. It has the lowest gestation period.
Assuming she accepts the concept of continuity in the Government, she owes an explanation as to why commercial utilisation of railways surplus land has proceeded at snail’s pace for last 20 years.
Does she remember that George Fernandes was perhaps the first Railways Minister to propose commercial use of surplus land. He did so in the ‘Status Paper on Indian Railways – Some Issues and Options’ in March 1990.
If social welfare bug has indeed bitten her, why did she not unveil a scheme to provide the common man a free access to rail hospitals across the country?
She would agree that saving life and limb has to be the first in the social priorities. Then why she wants to take five years to man all the 17,000 unmanned level crossings? Or, is that she has visualised hospitals to take care of rail accident victims?
The prevention of accidents, deaths and injuries would, of course, not help her strengthen her political stature in the same as renaming five stations of Kolkata Metro. Renaming apart, many of her announcements are nothing but only sound and fury with marginal financial burden. A case in point is the proposal to set-up Railway Cultural & Heritage Promotion Board.
She wants to view new railway line projects from the standpoint of social responsibility and not with the conventional wisdom of commercial viability.
Indicating her preference for social responsibility as the criterion for evaluating new projects, she said: “our objective is inclusive growth. Growth for all is not possible, if there is no connectivity. If we cannot include all in the ambit of our growth process, then growth will remain just a statistical expression.”
Mamata Di, you yourself have reduced the rail budget to mere statistical showpiece with numerous projects without making any financial and implementation commitments.
Take the case of the proposal to update the survey reports on 114 “Socially Desirable Rail Connectivity” projects. She has not set any timeframe for the update and as to when she would get these projects pushed through the Yojana Bhavan.
She has also proposed surveys for many new lines, line doubling surveys and gauge conversion surveys. This is nothing but statistical illusion.
As for the old wine in new bottle, a section of the media has wondered why the Railways in venturing into production of bottled drinking water. In her speech, she announced the decision to set-up six bottling plants at different locations.
Well, Railways owned- Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Limited (IRCTC) is already in the business of packaged drinking water with plants at two sites. It sells bottled water under the brand Rail Neer. In February 2009, it had invited bids for setting up third such plant near Chennai. IRCTC also produces PET plastic bottles. So what is the big deal if the company wants to expand its production?
Everyone knows that Railways is a big patron of the sports and owns sports facilities across the country. Every year, it incurs expenditure on upkeep, upgradation and expansion of these facilities.
It is moot point whether the budget platform should be used to make announcement such as providing astro-turfs for the development of hockey at more places.
Similarly, proposals to set-up modal logistic parks and high speed train corridors are in the works for quite some time. Similar is the case with some of the railway locomotives, coaches and bogies projects in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It would have been better if Mamata had explained the reasons for slow pace of implementation of these projects.
Her proposal to extend the concept of private-operated container trains to special freight train for commodities such as cement and products such as automobiles is welcome.
This and other initiatives to welcome private investment would gather pace only when the Railways agree to have an independent regulator for freight and train services as well as tariff.
As long as the Railways is the policymaker as well as competitor to the private sector for freight train services, there can be no fair competition.
Apart from setting up independent regulator, the Railways must think of major reforms that have been recommended by different committees over the years.
It is high time the UPA moves the Railways from political opportunism to national development.