Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Saturday, Jan 31, 2004
Logistics - Insight
No gravy train
The presentation of the Railway Budget for 2004-05 as is mentioned in the 11-page speech copy circulated to media was delayed by members of the Opposition parties raising points on the adjournment motions they sought to move.
So much so that only after half-an-hour of melee marked by walkouts by the main Opposition, the Congress(I), and later by the Left parties and the BSP, could Mr Nitish Kumar begin his speech.
The Minister side-stepped issues of propriety of outlining new programmes and starting new trains by a government that is to shortly become a caretaker, with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha, to unveil the "Remote Area Rail Sampark Yojana" to connect remote and backward areas with the rail network.
The decision to expedite the completion of all pending projects in remote and backward areas spread over five years with an additional investment component of Rs 20,000 crore seems but an attempt to woo prospective voters; the grand project could get de-railed if a different party/coalition takes charge at the Centre after the polls.
As it is, only in the winter session of Parliament did the Standing Committee on Railways, headed by Mr Yerran Naidu, a leader of the TDP, one of the key allies of the BJP, note with concern that as on April 1, 2003 there were 300 ongoing, seven pending and three frozen projects in the Railways' Pink Book.
Of these projects, 233 were in progress now, having a throw-forward of Rs 44,733 crore, while 74 have been completed with some residual works to be executed.
These ongoing projects comprise 82 new lines, 70 gauge conversions, 116 line doublings, 15 metropolitan transport and 17 railway electrification schemes with a throw-forward of Rs 24,450 crore, Rs 10,149 crore, Rs 4,911 crore, Rs 4,385 crore (including the share of State governments) and Rs 838 crore respectively and translate into a severe financial burden for the system.
It needs to be noted that the Railway projects are mainly financed through general budgetary support, market borrowings and internal generation.
As only Rs 4,800 crore, including Rs 2,210 crore from sources other than normal budgetary support (as from State government sharing, funds from the Ministry of Defence, and through build-operate-transfer Special Purpose Vehicle), is provided for in the current fiscal, by the Railways' own reckoning, going by the present rate of allocation and without considering escalation, the new lines would take 13 years to complete, doubling five years, and railway electrification four years.
In fact, Railway Ministry officials deposed before the House panel that the percentage viability of the ongoing projects is very low, excluding those taken up to provide/augment rail infrastructure in backward regions, or those taken up on social considerations, or those being implemented for the socio-economic development of such far-flung areas as Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East.
Yet, the Railway Minister appears to have ignored the findings of the Parliamentarians and gone in for the "Remote Area Rail Sampark Yojana" that would cost a whopping Rs 20,000 crore over five years.
Even the decision to run 17 "Sampark Kranti Express" for swifter connectivity from a State to the national capital with value-added features such as non-stop run beyond the State, dedicated staff throughout the run and public address system, appears impractical, considering the track record of Rajdhani-type trains traversing with greater frequency on congested routes through which most of these new trains would have to be run.
On the crucial issue of passenger comfort and train safety, Mr Nitish Kumar just referred to the Corporate Safety Plan of Indian Railways (2003-13) launched last August, entailing a safety action plan investment of Rs 31,835 crore.
While the overall objective is to reduce consequential train accidents per million train kilometres from 0.44 in 2002-03 to 0.17 in 2012-13, the funding for the current fiscal, at Rs 303 crore, does not even touch the fringe of the massive resources promised.
Leave alone safety on the tracks, the railways has not been able to offer protection to passengers inside coaches from lumpen elements.
That no less than a grand nephew of the Prime Minister was pushed out of a train by rowdy elements shows in poor light the Railway establishment and the Railway Protection Force (RPF). Equally low is the comfort level, especially in second class even in such prestigious trains as the Tamil Nadu Express.
Ticketless and reservation-less travel is rampant. All this makes a mockery of the comfort zone promised to genuine passengers.
Considering the state of affairs of the Railways, the time has come for a thorough overhaul of the behemoth, which continues to be run on a monolithic inward-looking paradigm.
Several attempts to bring about reforms and restructuring remain in limbo.
Being a closed organisation that does not allow much external scrutiny, the Railway Board sets its own policies and strategies largely based on internal perceptions and compulsions of the political dispensation. There are few external checks and balances.
Unless the system is freed from political interference and populist sentiments and run on purely commercial considerations with efficiency of service delivery both to passengers and freight traffic providers, the future of the country's largest and oldest transport system is in jeopardy.
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