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Lalu’s cool: AC cheaper

New Delhi, Feb. 24: Competition is not unknown to Lalu Prasad in politics, but today he led the railways into battle with low-cost airlines and road transport with gusto.

The railway minister cut air-conditioned train fares and announced discounts on freight rates.

If that was not enough to spread happiness all round, Lalu Prasad flagged his budget with the slogan: “Year of passenger service with a smile.”

As part of reorienting rail budget strategy, where revenue will be raised through higher volumes than by putting up charges, he cut AC first class fares by 18 per cent and AC II fares by 10 per cent.

Lower class and suburban fares have not been touched.

Freight discounts on larger volumes and incentives for customer loyalty have been introduced with low lean season rates.

In a rationalisation of freight rates, the cost of transporting petrol and diesel by rail will drop by 8 per cent, but this will not lead to lower prices.

Ridiculed often for his rustic inclinations ' and for saying once “yeh IT-YT kya hai” ' Lalu Prasad said cyber cafes and ATMs would be set up at stations. He promised food plazas, too.

It’s not that he has forgotten his constituency, however token the gesture might be. He widened the scope of concessions announced last year for milkmen and farmers travelling for purposes of training.

He has not forgotten Bihar either ' and no half-measures here. The state has been given 13 new trains ' out of 55 for the entire country.

Even bigger is the provision that Sonnagar, also in Bihar, though not on most maps, will be the termination point for a freight corridor from Ludhiana that will cost Rs 22,000 crore.

As he was reading this part of his budget speech, an almighty uproar erupted among the Left members, his allies, because the original plan was to have a corridor from Delhi to Calcutta. “We will vote against the budget if this is not corrected,” said Nilotpal Basu, of the CPM.

Through the commotion Lalu Prasad continued reading a speech peppered with couplets, one of which went: “I too am a river' whichever course I take will become the way.”

In response to criticism, he said: “The people of the country will judge us.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who called Lalu Prasad a “visionary” under whom the railways have improved their performance, said: “We are amenable to consider the concerns if they have merit in them.”

The investment thrust in the budget is on creating more capacity through new trains and adding more coaches to trains to cater to the increased traffic low fares and freight are expected to generate.

Critics say more trains will lead to greater congestion and strain on tracks, causing accidents.

But flush with cash reserves of Rs 11,280 crore which the railways have earned by pushing through more trains this year, Lalu and his team are sure this is the answer.

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