Noble intentions, but fine print awaited

There are many other spheres where Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu started with noble intentions, but restrained himself to make a lasting impression.

Vivek Sahai        Last Updated: February 26, 2015  | 21:45 IST
Noble intentions, but fine print awaited
Photo: AP

The Railway Budget of 2015 will go down in history as the first one where no announcement of new trains was made. Also, no effort was made to please every Member of Parliament and every region by offering sops in the form of new lines, surveys and halts to prestigious trains.

By that standard, it can be safely concluded that the Minister has refrained from adopting populist measures.

Only if he had not increased the freight rates and instead tried to balance the Budget by increasing passenger revenues through innovative measures, it would have an icing on the cake. That he avoided a bold stance on this front makes one feel let down.

There are many other spheres where the Minister started with noble intentions, but restrained himself to make a lasting impression.

There was talk of a rail regulator, but whether it would be a statutory body or would work only in advisory capacity was left to one's imagination.

The details of revenue expected and targets for next year's freight tonnage, passenger growth, increase in parcel revenue, etc. were not stated on the floor of the Parliament. One has to go through the entire printed document to read between the lines. Spelling out the annual targets puts pressure on the bureaucracy for the whole year to achieve them and eases the judgment of their performance.

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Capacity constraint is precluding any effort of the administration to achieve better growth in its traffic volumes - both passenger and freight. Annual targets for achieving doubling, tripling etc. of routes keeps everyone's focus involved in the exercise, which leads to good governance. The Minister has set ambitious targets for removal of unmanned level crossings, electrification etc. by increasing the plan outlay to more than Rs 1 lakh crore in 2015/16. It goes without saying that it will need very close monitoring to achieve them.

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Finally, infusion of much touted FDI will need a crystal clear policy to provide comfort to both the foreign investors as well as the officials in the ministry who will be handling the files. Unless there is a fair share of risks at either end, the convergence would be chimerical.

The Minister seems to be still in thinking mode. He has spelt out a vision for the next five years - a job earlier undertaken by the now defunct Planning Commission! Though the annual targets were not revealed, it appears that the Minister would pilot the Railway's boat through choppy waters by making real-time course corrections, if required. It is hoped that there will be no change of guard throughout this journey and he will be there to face the Parliament during the next Railway Budget, if there is one.

(The author is Former Chairman, Railway Board)

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