Indian Railway Budget: Populist measures taken with eye on coming polls

NEW DELHI The Indian government announced a populist railway budget yesterday here with one eye on the railway track, and another on the coming elections. There is no increase in train or freight fares.

By From Ravi S Jha

Published: Thu 27 Feb 2003, 2:59 AM

Last updated: Wed 1 Apr 2015, 8:24 PM

And as if this was not enough, the Minister of Railways Nitish Kumar has chosen to even bring down the fares of prominent trains like Rajdhani Express and Shatabdi Express.

Fifty-one new express and super-fast trains are to be started in 2003-2004, including one from Salem to Bangalore and also the frequency of 13 and extension of 24 train services have been considered.

Though the budget has left the ministry of railways with little choice on generating huge revenue to act in accordance with the populist announcement, the experts and analysts are surprised saying it is practically impossible to believe on how the government could fulfill its assurance.

The opposition parties have already termed the budget political stunt. But Mr Kumar has a different reason to cite altogether. "There is a three per cent fall in the use of trains by passengers who are said to have shifted to air and roads in comparison to last year. The decision taken in the railway budget is aimed at increasing the occupancy growth rate in the trains. And we would be able to do this only by keeping the train and freight fares under check," the railway minister told the Khaleej Times after announcing the budget.

However, last year the government had announced 80 new trains, and despite this there was a fall in the growth of train occupancy. If the budget is aimed at taking advantage of the populist support in the elections or not can be a debatable point, but at the time when the diesel prices have shot up owing to the middle-east crisis, the very decision of reducing fare rather than having a moderate increase has drawn considerable flak from the Opposition parties.

Senior officials in the Ministry of Finance says that there is a possibility of raising about Rs8000 crores that stands as outstanding dues to paid by several electricity boards and several others, and could be used by the railways to fulfill its need. With no revision in freight fares and, more so, with reduction in the earnings from upper class train travelers, the projected gross earning of Rs43,445 crore in 2003-04 looks far-fetched, accepts the authorities.

But taking into account that earlier budget rarely focused on the safety and security, cleanliness and comfort of the passengers, Mr Kumar said safety and consumer satisfaction are of prime consideration for the railways now."We are presenting a white paper covering the entire spectrum of issues involved in safety in train operations in Parliament during the current session. Also about 20,000 vacancies in safety categories in Group D are to be filled up through Railway Recruitment Boards within the next one year," he said.

Also there is a provision on upgradation of training facilities and introduction of modules on disaster management proposed in the training centers. Field trials have successfully been completed on Jalandhar-Amritsar section of the Anti-Collision Device. There is a provision of ACDs on about 1800 routes km and ACD surveys on 1641 route km are in progress, he said. ACD survey over additional 10,000 route km is also to be done.

About Rs425 crores is to be spent in Continuous Track Circuiting, presently being executed within station limits, for the maintenance of railway tracks. Underwater inspection and computerized non-destructive testing of bridges will be introduced for the first time this year in the railways and coaches are being redesigned to improve their crash worthiness, he said. For security on trains, recruitment of over 3500 constables in Railway Protection Security Force is to be undertaken. "And all this has to happen as we are dedicating 2003-04 as the Customer Satisfaction Year. For operation of cleanliness in the trains and on the railway stations, a task force has been constituted. Also for punctuality of trains there is a new monitoring mechanism through introduction of a new computerised Coaching Operation Information Systems (COIS)," said Mr Kumar.

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