After years and decades has come a Railways Budget that promises to revive the industry that was found ever-ailing, and lately on the verge of a collapse, thanks to endless populism that previous ministers and governments for long did not have the courage and conviction to set aside. The proposals for financial year 2014-15 have Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stamp writ large all over it, as this is an exact translation of the few rail-related election speeches he had made over the past one year. Since the fares were hiked by about 14% recently, no fresh hike had to be announced. Instead, Minister for Railways DV Sadananda Gowda sought to throw open floodgates of revenue by letting the private sector and foreign investors use non-train properties of the Railways. Services where profiteering cannot be the sole motive will be outsourced to NGOs and charitable institutions. This is a win-win proposition for passengers who could not have afforded to pay as much as the Railways spends to carry them from one place to another as well as for this government ministry that could not have sustained charity for long. Though such proposals are not new, what is novel is the absence of populist measures that could weigh them down. Freight rates’ competitiveness has been assured to pull back a chunk of the goods transportation business that has gone to roads. Cleanliness, hygiene, safety and security will now witness a new approach with branded food, RO water supply, CCTV monitoring, new signalling systems and women Railway Police Force constables who will go the extent of escorting women passengers to secure places. Pilgrims will have a better time with “circuits” announced for each community. Of course, while the minister categorised this as tourism, there is no talk of non-religious tours in this document. Bullet trains, the popular nomenclature for Shinkansen of Japan, will start on the Ahmedabad-Mumbai route, which has been studied for the purpose and found feasible. Remember, these trains will be expensive and, therefore, a possible plaint as to why other places were not considered for the project does not make economic sense. They will run successfully where passengers’ purses permit them to. Hence a flourishing industrial corridor! This will be followed by the Diamond Quadrilateral Network that will connect all metropolitan and first tier cities. Additionally, existing trains will speed up to 160-200 km/h.
Modernisation has the added advantage of fighting corruption, which has been amply taken care of in today’s announcements. Trains and stations will, in stages, finally attain the sophistication of Metro rail with automatic doors and platforms fenced by high concrete walls, making ticketless travel and fleecing by ticket checkers virtually impossible if mechanised entry and exit are added to these proposals. A much greater degree of loss owes to dubious bidding processes. To tackle that, e-governance is being introduced big-time so that one can keep a track of where, how and why contracts are going where they are.
Besides easing transportation for industries through coal and port connectivity, this Budget will go some way in curbing food prices also, as agricultural products will stay fresh in cold coaches and temporary railway stores till they reach the market.
But even as people of the Northeast will be happy for a Central government’s newfound focus on connecting the States and then bridging the gap between the region and mainland India, and while new routes that carry the labour class from their respective native places to big cities were announced, this Budget could not set itself free of the regional bias that every railway minister in the past could be accused of. Defying the assurance of impartiality issued a day ago, stations in Gowda’s State Karnataka found repeated mentions in the minister’s speech. Mumbai found several mentions perhaps to placate NDA ally Shiv Sena and to keep voters in the coming Assembly elections in Maharashtra in good humour. And the prime minister’s State Gujarat got a big bite off the apple, too. The minister sought to silence protesters from the Opposition seats by pleading with them again and again that they needed to hear him out patiently, but when the speech ended, almost nothing was found for the States Bengal and Odisha, and some pittance was thrown at Bihar, even as Telangana and Andhra Pradesh found distinct attention. At least thrice the minister said he had been receiving requests (or demands?) from MPs of special packages for their respective regions. Did Bengal and Odisha pay the price of sending less BJP MPs to Parliament? Was it to undo the Bihari-Bengali bias Railways has witnessed for over a decade? Or, was it because their elections are years away? Thankfully, the minister has undertaken that newer proposals would be worked upon throughout the year. This oversight of the East will hopefully be resolved in the subsequent months. As of now, let’s welcome a new era of management of Indian Railways.