Mamata Banerjee calls it an exercise in introspection. Lalu Prasad, the former railways minister, calls it a ‘black paper’ out to discredit him and the ‘turnaround’ story of his ministry’s finances. The document presented in the Lok Sabha by Banerjee on December 18, 2009, did not create a stir as it was the last day of the winter session. But the print and electronic media took it up, though only for a while, before consigning it to the history books.
Put together superbly, reportedly by Amit Mitra of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the White Paper attempts to put the performance of the railways in the correct perspective. Banerjee wanted to make sure that it would provide an important reference point when she presents the railway budget.
The White Paper, among other things, admits that the booming economic growth coupled with increasing carrying capacity of wagons had contributed to higher earnings. However, these had been inflated due to two ‘accounting changes’, along with other large chunks of payables being treated as surplus.
If accounting norms prior to 2003-04 were to be applied, the cumulative cash surplus before dividend — for five years, from 2003-04 to 2008-09 — dropped from Rs 88,669 crore to Rs 62,363 crore and further to Rs 39,411 crore if the consultant appropriation to depreciation reserve fund is taken as a part of working expenses.
Similarly the ‘investible surplus’ would drop from Rs 66,804 crore to Rs 43,220 crore and to Rs 20,268 crore, a far cry from the billions in surplus, which Lalu Prasad had been crowing about. Infrastructural giants such as the railways have to plan way ahead to attain growth, as their projects have long gestation periods. Unfortunately, successive ministers have been rather short-sighted, except perhaps for Lalu Prasad who took a bold decision to push through the concept of the multi-crore dedicated freight corridors.
The White Paper’s contention that the generally accepted growth elasticity for transport was not met within the entire five-year period may be valid, but Lalu Prasad did not get the opportunity for a second term during the course of which he may have got somewhat close to achieving it with crores to be spent on the DFC. It is now for Banerjee to prove that she is capable of supporting something that she believes in, that is if she does not move base after the forthcoming elections in West Bengal.
The White Paper also mentions “Issues and Options”, a subject first raised by Nitish Kumar as early as 2002 when he presented a ‘Status Paper’ on Indian Railways in the Lok Sabha. Seven years down the line, we have yet to address the core issue of whether the railways is a public service or should it be run on commercial lines.
Perhaps it is pertinent to point out that China has surged ahead in its infrastructural growth, with its railways leading the charge, although it carries half the Indian Railways’ long distance passenger traffic. Freight occupies a commanding position in the economy as a preferred mode of transport, with over 2,700 million tonnes. India, meanwhile, is still struggling to reach 900 million tonnes.