Prabhu for our ‘Happy journey’

Shiban Khaibri
Speed, security, service and sustainability are the main priorities of Suresh Prabhu’s railway budget of 2016 presented in the Lok Sabha . Global slowdown and implementation of the 7th pay commission recommendations are the areas of pressure to be faced by the Railways along with an attempt to break the vicious circle of outdated work culture, low investments, inadequate revenues, insufficient facilities to the travelling public, security and safeguard measures, deficient speed, low efficiencies, infrastructural low support and the like. The Indian Railways carrying 2 crore passengers per day, are  one of the main growth engines of our economy and “Achay Din ” in this important segment appear not far away if sincere efforts of translating all big promises and “dreams” are translated into reality.  Cooperation from all including the main segment of passengers is solicited in that the services offered are to be matched with their costs and raising high pitches laced with political overtures over fare adjustments are to be totally discouraged. This budget, at a glance appears to be a departure from the conventional approach and is laden with innovative ideas and experiments with the hope that perhaps Railways are poised for taking a big leap towards all round change.
This being Prabhu’s second budget seems to be inspired with the conviction of Shri Modi , the Prime Minister who said,” My vision is to make railways backbone of India’s progress and economic development.” The unique feature of this year’s budget is that   Passenger fare and freight fare are not increased and the Minister hopes to up the revenues from other sources. This has taken much of the expected wind from the sails of the opposition parties who would have seen it as being “anti poor”. Alternative revenue modes are going to be exploited. The plan size is increased by Rs.21000 crores. Operating ratio target of 92% is set due to expected higher earnings. A Budgetary support of Rs. 40000 crore is expected from the government and a revenue of Rs.184820 crore in the next year.  Working expenses are targeted to be restricted at 11.6% in the fiscal 2016-17.  It is possible only by  cost optimization and revenue enhancement through innovative means. A small beginning having been made in this direction by saving Rs.8720 crore due to various austerity drives which could neutralize most of the revenue shortfalls this year.  A capital plan of Rs. 1.21 lac crore has been formulated for the year 2016-17. Forty four new projects have been sanctioned covering 5300 kilometers and costing Rs. 19000 crore. “Make in India” finds its echo in this budget as two new loco factories  are proposed with an amount of Rs. 40000 crore. The three pillars of the strategy reflecting the new thought process have been identified as “Nav Arjan”  or New Revenues ; “Nav Manak” or New norms :and “Nav Sanrachna” or  New structures.  Under New Revenues, the innovative Minister plans to tap alternative sources of revenue and optimally monetizing the tangible and non tangible assets. Under New Norms, it is hoped to improve efficiency yardsticks and procurement practices to bring them in line with international standards. Under New Structures, the budget lays emphasis on reviewing the conventional ways of solving issues. Cooperation, collaboration, creativity, and communication should form the basis of the hall mark of decisions taking process and actions.
The Minister has identified the inherent strengths, diverse talents, and rich experience to emerge stronger but let these not remain just literary truisms and need to be fully exploited and not left for any chance. A vision 2020 unfolds the long felt desires of the common man when reservation on trains could be possible on demand, punctuality gradually increased to 95% at par with high international standards, elimination of all unmanned crossings, high safety record improvement, minimum speed of 50 kms of freight trains and express trains at over 80 kms; semi high speed trains running across the golden quadrilateral and   zero direct discharge of human waste.  However, 17000 bio toilets in trains are planned and additional toilets at 475 stations, all by the end of 2016. Wi- Fi services are planned to be provided at 100 stations by the end of 2016 and at 400 more in the next two years. It is also hoped that 2800 kms of new tracks will be commissioned in next year. The Minister has assured to install high tech centralized net work of 20000 screens across 200 stations known as Rail Display Network. The Budget has plans to fight the menace of pollution to a certain extent by increasing electrification by almost 50% and the proposal is to electrify 2000 kms in the next financial year. Under Centre’s “Develop East” mission, the state of Orissa (Odisha) is going to be benefited in a long way as Rs. 4682 crore are planned to be spent on various railway projects to build up massive development of Railway infrastructure.  CM  Naveen Patnaik has thanked the Railway Minister as this state has not seen such a massive allocation since independence   getting 30% more than the previous budget. However, state Congress, for the sake of criticism, has termed the Budget as disappointing and the communists, as usual, seeing it as “anti people and Partisan”. Likewise in Chennai, India’s first rail auto hub is to come up to give boost to the economic development of the state. Delhi is going to be benefited by improving upon the Ring Railways in partnership with the local government. It also envisages boosting the suburban rails in close cooperation with the Karnataka government. The Minister has informed that from as many as 17 states, in – principal approvals have been received for forming joint ventures. Mizoram and Manipur from our North East areas are to get connectivity soon through broad gauge.
The Budget has specially focused on women, children, physically specially abled and senior citizens. On line wheel chair booking and separate toilets for this special segment of our society are planned. Milk food, milk, (boiled) potable water for children shall now be available at railway stations.  It is proposed to provide multipurpose stalls at stations to provide multiple services like milk , medicines etc. Local cuisine of choice is proposed to be made available to the passengers. IRCTC will begin to manage catering service in phased manner, the need of it was being felt and e- catering to all stations is proposed to be provided. The quota for women and senior citizens on lower berths was going to be increased. Fool proof security for women passengers will be there on each and every train. There is good news for journalists too as they shall make e- booking of tickets on concessional passes. Fully unreserved super fast trains are planned to be introduced on dense traffic routes and unreserved passenger coaches named as Deen Dayal coaches to be introduced in long distance trains.
There are , however, some pertinent questions too that can be relevant to this otherwise a perfectly innovative passenger friendly and development oriented budget.  The railways have not been able to achieve its revenue targets fixed last year, however, with austerity measures, it is hopeful to save Rs. 3000 crore in this fiscal. It is also pointed out that plans appear to be high on intent, nice and in a way forward looking but where are the funds to support it? However, the railways rely upon controlling working expenses and increasing freight by as much as 50 million tons and some savings on diesel and electricity.  The pressures of the 7th pay commission in which the pension outgo is budgeted at Rs. 45500 crore for 2016-17, the passenger revenues expected to increase on account of passenger initiatives, the non fare revenues to double and working expenses austerity would offset the burden of the pay commission. This appears highly ambitious and may not match with practical figures later.
However, in  most of the UPA budgets, promises made never matched with ground realities and keeping that in view , set deadlines appear to have been fixed by Shri Prabhu  as new trains shall be introduced in phases say within two to three months period. Global slowdown is having impact on our railways too and therefore the government is looking for other sources of revenue besides passenger and freight. It is here where new approach is needed and with transparency in areas of revenues and expenditures unlike the one of window dressings as Laloo Ji had reportedly resorted to as RM which was later pointed out by Mamta Bannerji who succeeded him. Momentary pleasant hearing of “Wah Wah ” then proved nothing  excepting  looking  at things from a  vote bank and a text book combined  obsolete approach.
Again former “expert” Railway Minister Laloo Ji , at once, has seen it as “cheating the poor”. TMC finds “nothing new” in it. They are debarred from tasting any “new” as with just a whimper of change in approach by Dinesh Trivedi , he was shown the door   unceremoniously by Manmohan Singh government on being asked by Mamta Ji. Whereas,  Nitish Ji finds in it “no concrete proposal”. Congress has seen in it “nothing beyond weaving of dreams”. However, our state does not seem to get benefitted in a major way excepting the increase in allocations and expansion of rail network. People of our state, however,  are still deciphering which dream the Late Mufti Sahib had seen which NOW is being found difficult to be fulfilled. Concluding, this budget is loaded with a lot of innovative and much desired initiatives to make our journey a comparatively “Happy Journey”.