Boring, or euphemistically, a textbook budget, best defines Pawan Bansal’s rail budget — an apology for cess hikes, mega plans for safety but no roadmap as such, a few touch-ups here and there on passenger amenities, no big investment opportunities for the industry and no efforts at mega reforms of the railways.
No wonder, the markets gave the thumbs down to the budget. The Sensex on Tuesday plunged 316 points, to a three-month low.
So, passenger fares have gone up yet again, though as a sleight of hand. While the base fare remains the same, you will have to pay more for amenities, which essentially means that the hike will impact mainly passengers of the reserved category. Unreserved ones, who comprise a major chunk of travellers, can breathe easy for the time being.
In effect, reservation fee, tatkal charges and cancellation fee have gone up significantly, with hikes ranging from Rs5 on the second-class to Rs25 on AC first- and executive-classes.
According to Bansal, the hikes will fetch the railways Rs483 crore. “We will get Rs143 crore from the reservation charge hike, Rs73 crore from superfast charges, Rs65 crore from tatkal reservations and Rs202 crore from increased cancellation charges,” said Bansal after presenting the budget.
This benefit is miniscule compared with the colossal requirements of the railways, which needs at least Rs1.4 lakh-crore annually for the next 10 years to start making profits.
Bansal’s budget also seems to be out of sync with the Centre and the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) line on inflation. While the RBI is now getting lenient on the interest rate front to curtail inflation, the 5.8% increase in freight rates via fuel linked adjustment component will stoke inflation. Accordingly, the freight of grains and pulses will go up by 6%, kerosene by 5.79%, LPG by 5.79%, and urea by 5.8%.
But that wasn’t the end of the disappointment. Parts of Bansal’s budget speech sounded too familiar.
Take his promises of making rail travel safer, for instance. The announcement of a nationwide safety helpline is an old hat. The project had begun when Mamata Banerjee was the railway minister. Almost three years later, the project is still in its pilot phase.
Mumbai’s western and central railway networks were completely connected to this pilot project only last month.
The same day, a parliamentary committee’s audit reports pointed out that the railway ministry has been sitting on various projects sanctioned almost two decades ago.
There was ample lip service paid to the issue of women’s safety as well. According to the minister, the railways have already created four companies of woman railway protection force (RPF) personnel, and another eight are on the cards. But the fine print paints a dismal picture.
The number of woman RPF personnel will go up to a minuscule 960 once the proposed eight companies with 80 personnel each are created. But they will not be deployed on any of the long-distance trains since the railway ministry considers it “unfeasible” to have woman personnel on such trains.
The budget was also silent on the strategy to implement the promises. Most important of them being the corporate safety plan for 2014-2024, which finds a mere mention without any elaboration. The last size was of the plan was Rs17,000 crore in 2003.
The railway’s network expansion plans are also not in sync with the need of the hour. It has proposed only 500km of new lines, and 450km to be converted to broad gauge, both of which are less than that of last year.