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After all the hoopla, an exercise in futility

To say that the Railway Budget 2003-04 presented by my friend Nitish Kumar in Parliament today was lacklustre would be an understatement.

The railways are celebrating 150th year of their advent in this country and the year has been declared as Passengers Amenities Year. But where are the passengers' They are running away. By his own admission, Kumar has acknowledged a 3 per cent decline in passenger traffic this year and consequent loss of Rs 720 crore to the exchequer.

It is a paradox that this dubious distinction has been earned by Indian Railways perhaps for the first time since its inception.

Our railway minister seems to be fond of issuing ‘white papers’. There is no harm in this exercise but for the fact that such white papers invariably land in dustbins.

A status paper listing issues and options before the Indian Railways was issued by the ministry in May 2002. During his speech of over an hour in the House today he did not mention having taken any action on issues listed in the above status paper. This country would perhaps be saved of millions of rupees on yet another white paper on safety if the minister could find some time to go through the plethora of reports submitted by several commissions and committees on railway safety.

Nitish Kumar has very graciously announced in Parliament today that he would be filling up 20,000 posts in the group D category on the railways to ensure safety in train operation. Does the minister require Parliamentary approval for things such as filling up of vacant posts in safety categories' Perhaps not in the ordinary course.

But if one looks at the statement with regard to manpower outlined in the status paper of May 2002 the avowed strategy of the railways was to bring down the staff strength from the present level of 15.45 lakh to about 11.8 lakh by 2010. It is perhaps this volte-face, which explains the ad hoc manner in which the railway ministry is dealing with issues concerning life and death of railway passengers. Human failure is being cited as one of the main causes of railway accidents. In my long association with the railway family, I have always found railwaymen willing to learn and take responsibilities.

It is for leadership to equip them with desired knowledge and skills so that the tragedies such as we have seen in the recent past do not recur.

Safety has always been one of the major concerns for the ministers who occupied the Rail Bhavan since independence. Each of them have dealt with the matter. However, there is no precedent in the past where the minister has claimed credit for accumulating the arrears in routine replacement of railway assests and then putting all and sundry expenses charged to a special budget head termed as safety fund.

What else can be more disconcerting than the fact that the minister did not think it fit to explain to the House as to how has he spent/proposes to spend the amount of Rs 18,000 crore stated to have been earmarked by the government for safety works'

Making provision for routine replacement of tracks and rolling stock, normal repair and upkeep of bridges has always been the part of the normal budget. Making these provisions look like an investment in safety, is nothing but jugglery of figures. This is so when the whole nation was keen to know from the railway minister what would lie in store for them when they catch the next Rajdhani / Shatabdi to Patna, Bangalore or to Lucknow.

That this budget would not have any surprises for passengers or the industry during this year of elections, was expected. What was not was the complete lack of initiatives on the part of the rail ministry.

Introduction of Rail Neer by Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation was announced with much fanfare during the budget last year. But one of the projects, Rail Neer, is yet to see the light of the day. Meanwhile, unscrupulous business houses are having a field day in supplying pesticide-ridden water to rail passengers at hefty costs.

The much-touted RailTel Corp was slated to bring in about crores of revenue, but ended up hiring safety-related telecom infrastructure of the railway to the private enterprises for a few crores. The way the railway minister is coming up with one new public sector enterprise after another, the government would have to think of setting up a separate ministry of disinvestment for railway enterprises in the not-too-distant future.

To conclude, my learned friend Nitish Kumar has totally ignored the important aspects of budget making i.e. resource mobilisation and strengthening of the organisation. Even in the pittance when he has allocated for various developmental projects and has been led by political considerations alone.

The need of the hour was reforms and the nation expected a reformist budget that would have laid a sound basis for administrative and financial restructuring of the railways to bring them on a par with the world-class railway networks.

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