Union Rail Minister Suresh Prabhu needs to be commended for changing the basic tenets of how a Rail Budget is presented in India. He has made some radical departures from the past — a process he began last year — and by continuing in the same vein, he has indicated that this is now going to the new format of the Rail Budget for the years to come, at least as long as he or/and the Narendra Modi government is in office.
Those looking for easy headlines and simple talking points — the number of new trains, which state got what, whether the rail minister favoured his home state or that of his political bosses and so on — will be a bit disappointed. Hike or the negation of it, in passenger and freight tariff of course, has not been big news for quite some time. Long-term and medium-term perspectives, augmentation of resources, capacity enhancement, safety and such other things, although vitally important were only deemed useful for side stories.
Prabhu, a technocrat, brought in by Modi from outside the resource pool of the BJP has changed the game.
The Rail Budget was so far taken to be presentation of accounts of preceding year and current financial year, achievements if any (real or manufactured), announcement of new trains and new tracks, taking care of VVIP areas and mandatory lip service for enhancing passenger amenities and safety concerns.
For a long time, the presentation of the Rail Budget had acquired an added dimension. The rail minister portfolio — during the coalition era, or even before — and the rail ministry would invariably go to a strong regional ally, whether Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mamata Banerjee (or her appointees), Nitish Kumar, Ram Vilas Paswan, George Fernandes and prior to that, strong regional satraps from Congress. So the state-centric announcements for the state to which the rail minister belonged — as also of the leader from the senior coalition partner (or their constituency) — would be very heavy. Bihar and West Bengal, as also Amethi and Raebarelli benefitted a lot in the past decades. While a state or two faced positive discrimination, leaders and common men from other states made a lot of noise.
It caused a lot of bad blood.
Speaking exclusively to Firstpost, Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sinha, an IIT-BHU alumni, said "the Rail Budget is not about announcement of new trains and number of stops a particular train will have. It should never have been like this. It means much more than that. Rail connects people in all parts of the country and carries persons of all hues, all strata. The rail minister has made right decisions. The prime minister is very keen to see that the face of Indian railway is changed for the good." He said last year several new trains had been started. This means that to run a new train, the minister does not need to wait for a year and announce that in the Rail Budget.
Gone are the days when the MPs and regional leaders would lobby with the rail minister or his political bosses for announcement of new trains, new tracks, new stations, stops for super fast trains at smaller stations. A section of MPs are not happy about that. But that has relieved Prabhu from a lot of trouble that his peers in Parliament could otherwise cause to him.
That being said, there was some commotion in the House. Some Opposition MPs raised their pitch to accuse Prabhu of neglect when he announced the names of pilgrim centres including Ajmer, Amritsar, Bihar Sharif, Chengannur, Dwarka, Gaya, Haridwar, Mathura, Nagapattinam, Nanded, Nasik, Pali, Parasnath, Puri, Tirupati, Vailankanni, Varanasi and Vasco for the provision of passenger amenities and station beautification on a priority basis. The rail minister said, "We also intend to run Aastha circuit trains to connect important pilgrim centres."
But unmindful of the noise, he kept on reading his speech.
The Rail Budget has proposed joint ventures with states for new railway projects. That's a welcome move. The states concerned after all know best about which areas needs greater attention. Prabhu said this was in line with the Modi government's cooperative federalism thought process and 17 states have already given their nod for that — and around half a dozen MoUs have been signed. But there is a problem: What about the perpetual laggards like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh? The western and southern states will actively associate with this joint venture and the eastern states will be left behind.
Sinha said the Centre will of course do its bit, but the states will have to come forward and cooperate in certain sectors of work like earmarking and allocation of land.
The rail minister has outlined the challenges that lay before him: "These are challenging times, may be one of the toughest. We are faced with two headwinds, entirely beyond our control; tepid growth of our economy’s core sectors due to international slowdown, the looming impact of the Seventh Pay Commission and increased productivity bonus payouts. Further, historically declining the modal share of Indian Railways, which dropped from 62 percent in 1980 to 36 percent in 2012, is continuing to exert pressure on the institution." But he quoted few lines from Atal Bihari Vajpayee's poem to stress that he remains fully committed in his resolve.
He presents an optimistic picture for times to come: "We, in the Railways, must provide to the citizens of this country a rail system that they can be proud of — a system free from capacity constraints, a system that is efficient and predictable, a system that is sparkling and pristine, where the people of my country feel at ease, where there is plenty of choice in every sphere of activity, and the ease of doing business pervades the entire railway ecosystem. In short, a system that is capable of taking care of its own needs financially and otherwise. By 2020, we look forward to meeting the long-felt desires of the common man — reserved accommodation on trains being available on demand; time-tabled freight trains with credible service commitments; high-end technology to significantly improve the safety record; elimination of all unmanned level crossings; punctuality increased to almost 95 percent; increased average speed of freight trains to 50 kilometres per hour and mail/express trains to 80 kilometres per hour; semi high-speed trains running along the golden quadrilateral and zero direct discharge of human waste."
And then there are whole lot of other announcement to make one actually contemplate a pleasant train journey.
Also, next time when you get down from the train with luggage, look for a "sahayak", not a coolie.