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Friday , 17 May 2024

Railway Budget Hits and Misses

Among the new trains introduced in the railway budget introduced by the Union Minister for Railways, Mamata Banerjee is the Jaipur-Agra-Shatabdi Express and a Delhi-Jaipur double-decker service. Connectivity to other major tourist destinations in Rajasthan including Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Ajmer will also get a boost. Khajuraho will be better connected now if the Udaipur-Gwalior rail link gets extended to Khajuraho, as promised by the Union Minister for Railways, Mamata Banerjee.

The infrastructure at various railway stations in tourist destinations will be improved with the state governments sharing 50% of the cost. This project will benefit pilgrimage centres like Varanasi, Hardwar, Amritsar, Nanded, Rameshwar and Tirupati.

Andhra Pradesh, which normally complains of getting a raw deal, will also benefit from 14 new trains, proposals for 22 new railway lines, a railway wagon factory and a railway sports academy.

The Bangalore Metro rail project will also benefit substantially with a hefty grant of र1500 crore from the general budget which is higher than र1351 crore for the Delhi Metro. Chennai has got a substantial र2160 crore for its Metro.

The big proposed expansion in suburban rail lines in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Delhi is good news for wagon and rake manufacturers, according to Pawan Ruia, Chairman of Jessop and company, a maker of railway coaches and wagons. But there is no immediate major relief for rail commuters in the Metro cities.

The Railway Minister has ruled out privatisation of the Railways which is understandable because it has not worked very well elsewhere. The privatisation of British rail posed so many problems that it sparked a successful play by the noted playwright David Hare called ‘The Permanent Way’. But in some areas, private initiative in railway infrastructure has yielded good results as in the Adani group’s construction of the 64km Mundra-Adipur railway line in Gujarat.

It appears that the future growth of Indian railway is to be increasingly subjected to the discipline of the capital markets, including those overseas. The budget kept passenger fares constant for the eighth year in a row and did not touch the freight rates either.

The Minister has showcased the railways as an engine of growth by proposing factories in Singur, Nandigram, Darjeeling and Uluberia in West Bengal and also in other states. She proposes to set up a coach factory at Singur as several landowners there have volunteered to sell their land directly to the Railways. Also proposed is a rail industrial park at Jellingham in Nandigram. The park will be a cluster of diverse industrial units whose output will be consumed by the Railways. A proposed 700mw gas based power plant to be set up at Thakurli near Kalyan, Mumbai, will be an asset to the Mumbai suburban rail network. Tremendous work has been done in the Metro centre in terms of hardware in rail services, but it is necessary to pay more attention to the human element.

The job of the railways is not merely to transport human beings like cargo. It has to look at their other needs too. The big talking point in Mumbai is the sad neglect of toilets at railway stations, particularly for women. These are either non-existent or are poorly managed. Also, many people fall off crowded railway trains and many die while crossing the tracks. More than 300 people have died at one suburban station of Vikhroli (Mumbai) in the year 2010 because the Railways has failed to construct an overhead bridge despite furious public demand and rail-rokos. Also lacking is not only an ambulance facility but even something as basic as a First Aid box at many stations. The issue regularly comes up in the Mumbai High Court. A motorman of a suburban train in Mumbai died after a heart attack recently. Fatigue at work is seen as a reason and it is also causing more accidents, railway unions say.

Also the move to reduce sitting space in the local trains and make more people stand in overcrowded conditions is not going to prove beneficial. It is necessary not only to build more tracks and wagons but also proper bridges at railway stations which are extremely crowded.

The emphasis in the budget is on long term projects, on laying new lines in the Virar-Panvel and Uran-Belapur region on the outskirts of Mumbai which the builder lobby is eyeing for speedy development and investment. The talk of constructing world class railway stations is considered laughable because even the major terminus for local trains at Churchgate, Mumbai is in a deplorable condition. The Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation has got a pat from the Minister as it has expanded the rail network in the metropolis, but much more needs to be done.

The Minister has a vision of Greater Kolkata – extending the city’s radius to 65km with rail connectivity. The IT professionals from Singur or Kalyani – 45 to 60km away, can reach Esplanade or Salt Lake without getting off the Metro network in an hour. She has also done well to declare the year 2011-12 as the year of green energy and emphasise that the railway is the most energy-efficient and environment-friendly means of transport. This makes more sense in view of the rising fuel prices and escalation of consumer goods’ prices which threaten people’s living standards. There is a clear need to shift both goods and passenger traffic from roads to railways to conserve fuel.

But the budget does little to improve the economy of relatively backward states like those in the North East or Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. The All Assam Students Union burnt copies of the budget in protest against the state’s neglect. Even the prosperous state of Punjab has complained of neglect. There is nothing for the country’s granary, said the deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal.

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