The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Lollipopulist Laloo

New Delhi, July 6: Look what competition has done to the railway — it can raise neither fares nor freight.

For the second year running, a railway minister has left fare and freight untouched, though Laloo Prasad Yadav, because of his reputation, will be quickly slapped the “populist” label.

The railway minister winched up parcel rates alone to raise an additional revenue of about Rs 50 crore, introduced 15 new trains and doled out a bagful of lollies to the poor and the underprivileged.

A quarter century ago, Madhu Dandavate had dared walk such a populist plank, though Nitish Kumar ran him pretty close last year ahead of the Assembly elections. Laloo Prasad, too, today came close without being able to touch Dandavate who did not change any rates.

The sole additional levy in Laloo Prasad’s budget is a small increase in parcel rates applicable largely to goods loaded on Rajdhani trains.

If his budget was short on hikes, his speech was surprisingly shorn of the customary earthy rhetorical flourish.

No wonder the BJP called it “tasteless, colourless and odourless”. Maybe it was so because the party boycotted today’s session in protest at the alleged “taint” on the minister and will return to Parliament tomorrow.

Laloo Prasad said: “This railway budget is pro-poor, pro-middle class and pro-business without imposing any burden. There is a way to make Indian Railways self-sufficient and to make it the leader in the world and it is not by hiking fares.”

Revenue can be earned from sources like sale of scrap and by plugging leaks, he said.

Admission of pressures of competition came when he claimed his budget would bring back the passengers and freight that were moving to airlines and roads.

Upper-class and AC fares have reached a stage where airlines are looking competitive. Suburban train fares can be raised, but Laloo Prasad may have balked at it as it will be highly unpopular.

Later, Railway Board chairman R.K. Singh said when the railway last raised fares in 2002-03, there was a 3.8 per cent drop in passenger traffic.

Year after year of squeezing freight for additional revenue had led to the railway steadily losing traffic to road transport.

Leading business lobbies, while calling the budget “pragmatic”, said freight rates should have been cut. Industry will get a 10 per cent rebate for carting heavy machinery.

The stock market rose nearly 85 points, though it was not clear what had caused the jump.

Laloo Prasad announced 15 new express trains with Bihar and Tamil Nadu bagging four each; Karnataka and Punjab got two, and Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Rajasthan one each. These will be in addition to the 17 Sampark Kranti Express trains announced in the interim budget.

He increased the frequency of 12 others, including the New Delhi-Sealdah Rajdhani Express, which will now run every day of the week.

Laloo Prasad played true to form when he proposed to spend Rs 5 crore to build shelters for porters at stations where they could rest and said he would hand out privilege passes to spouses of porters as well to travel anywhere in India in sleeper class. He announced a social security scheme for the unorganised sector — porters, vendors, hawkers and construction workers at railway stations.

Special tourist trains — “Village-on-Wheels”, people’s version of the “Palace on Wheels” — will be introduced with ordinary sleeper classes. These trains will travel to places of religious and historical importance.

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