Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mamata's Rail Budget 2010: Gimmicks Galore

The Railway Budget presented by Mamata Banerjee in Parliament today (February 24) exposes a sharp deterioration in the performance of the Indian Railways.

Far from containing any vision for the future of the Indian Railways, Mamata's Budget speech sought to conceal gross failures through misleading announcements and gimmicks aimed at next year's Assembly elections in West Bengal.

Over 120 railway accidents have taken place so far during this financial year. In this backdrop it is inexplicable how the allocations for the Railway Safety Fund has been cut by Rs. 579 crore from last year.

Moreover, Mamata has strangely tried to shift the blame for railway accidents on to rail rokos and natural disasters! This shows the Minister’s distorted perspective on the crucial aspect of railway safety.

According to the Railway Ministry’s own estimates, over 1.7 lakhs Railway posts were lying vacant in 2009, out of which nearly 90,000 were posts related to railway safety. Mamata has kept completely silent on filling up these vacancies, which can provide job opportunities to unemployed youth.

The Railway’s operating ratio (the ratio of total working expenses to the earnings – a higher ratio implies deterioration), which was 90.5% in 2008-09 has risen to 94.7% in 2009-10. Such a sharp deterioration in just one year reflects the gross mismanagement of Railway affairs by Mamata who has spent more time in Kolkata plotting against the Left Front government in cahoots with the Maoists than in Rail Bhawan in New Delhi.

Gross Traffic Receipts in 2009-10 have fallen short of the budgeted estimate by Rs. 63 crore. Moreover, plan investment in Railways also fell short of the budgeted target of 2009-10 by Rs. 497 crore.

This clearly shows that Mamata Banerjee has not been able to implement the tall promises she made in the last Budget. In this context the grandiose announcements of projects ranging from hospitals and diagnostic centres, sports academies and musuems ring a trifle hollow.

By Mamata's own admission, many of her project announcements were made without the sanction of the Planning Commission. Their implementation therefore is highly suspect. This is further borne out by the fact that for 2010-11, plan investment in Railways is budgeted to increase by only Rs. 1142 crore, which amounts to a drastic fall in plan investment in real terms.

While the Railway Minister has made tall claims on laying 1000 km of new railway lines, it is shocking that the actual plan allocations for gauge conversion, doubling of railway lines and new rolling stock like wagons and carriages have been cut in nominal terms.

This squeeze in public investment in the Railways is accompanied by an unprecedented thrust towards privatisation in all areas in the name of PPP: from modernisation of railway stations, new railway lines, freight and passenger corridors, locomotive, wagon and container manufacturing, rail axle factory, parking complexes and bottling plants.

This wholesale privatisation programme for the Railways and thus opening up the entire sector for private profiteering will be inimical to the national interest. It appears as if the entire decision-making in the Railway Ministry has been handed over to the corporate sector.

But then, given Manmohan Singh's privatisation agenda, Mamata Banerjee's Budget is of a piece.