Spending five days in a week in Kolkata to fight the Left Front government rather than behind her desk in Rail Bhawan in New Delhi, Mamata Banerjee certainly did not have any time to prepare the Railway Budget, which she presented in Parliament today. Not surprisingly, her Budget does not bear her imprimatur but that of the technocrats running Indian Railways.
So once again, as in other branches of the new government, neo-liberal thinking dominated the Budget-making exercise. This will include not only developing “50 world class” railway stations but go down the line, as it were, to cover even developing Railway medical colleges along with rail hospitals on public-private partnership (PPP) basis. Besides, there is the par for course tokenism like availability of 'Janata Khana', in which national and regional cuisines will figure on the menu.
Alarmingly, Mamata's first Railway Budget reflects a marked deterioration in the financial position of the Indian Railways. Lalu Prasad's Railway Budget of 2008-09 had reported a cash surplus of around Rs 23,000 crore. However, this surplus came down to Rs. 13,532 crore in this year's interim Railway Budget (February 2009) presented just before the Lok Sabha elections.
Now, in a short span of six months the surplus has come down further to just Rs 8,631 crore in the current Budget. Where has the money gone? Mamata owes an explanation for this serious deterioration of performance. Why has the cash surpluses of the Railways depleted so rapidly in such a short span of time?
To be fair, it seems the economic slowdown has adversely affected Railway revenues, especially from freight traffic. Estimates for Receipts have been revised downwards from the targets set by the interim Railway Budget presented by Lalu Prasad earlier this year, which Mamata Banerjee termed “unrealistically high” in her speech.
However, Mamata has failed to come up with any fresh ideas in tackling the situation and turnaround the declining revenue situation. Rather she has chosen to take recourse to the same flawed route of privatisation through PPP projects in a host of areas. Indeed, privatisation and outsourcing in the Railways has received a major thrust in this year’s Budget. Is this the beginning of the privatisation of Indian Railways?
Mamata's reliance on several PPP projects, from development of 50 “world class stations”, new freight and coach terminals, logistics parks, special purpose rolling stocks, perishable cargo centres etc., seems completely misplaced at a time of economic recession when private investment is hardly forthcoming.
Mamata admitted in her speech that out of Rs 3400 crore earmarked in the Annual Plan for 2009-10, for resource mobilization through PPP, “Rs 3300 crore would just not materialise”. The allocations for crucial areas like railway modernisation, safety, electrification etc are also inadequate.
Thankfully, there are some positive measures in the Railway Budget 2009-10 like no hike in passenger fares, Rs 25 monthly ticket for people earning less than Rs. 1500 per month or a special recruitment drive to fill up vacancies in railway posts for SC/STs, physically challenged, minorities and women.
We can only hope Mamata devotes more time to Indian Railways in the larger national interest and not limit herself to West Bengal politics. If the latter is more important to her, she must relinquish charge and let someone else take over. Indian Railways is too important to be left to the technocrats on the Railway Board.
Roger And Out