R C Acharya
There is no changing track; the format for the rail budget presented by P. K. Bansal is more or less similar to those presented by his predecessors such as Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad, Mamata Banerjee and Dinesh Trivedi.
While Mamata Banerjee had proposed 114 new lines, mercifully Bansal has limited himself to taking up 22 new lines, one gauge conversion for socio economic considerations and one doubling project.
However, various suggestions from zonal railway users’ consultative committees at the divisional and zonal levels as well as requests from various MLAs and ministers have led him to announce surveys for 59 lines in 2013-14. He has also promised surveys for five works under gauge conversion and 25 for doubling.
Unfortunately, with nearly 500 projects of over Rs 1 lakh crore pending completion, these surveys would add to expectations of political heavy weights who have made these suggestions. They are bound to pursue it at various public forums, including Parliament, when the next budget is presented.
However, for the first time for a rail minister, Bansal has identified 347 ongoing projects to be undertaken on priority with full funding and in a time-bound manner during the 12th Plan.
He could not resist announcing a large number of goodies under passenger amenities, which have been featuring with monotonous regularity every year. Nor could he avoid introducing new trains — 26 express, 5 MEMUs, 8 EMUs, extending the run of 50 trains, increasing frequency of no less than 24 trains — all crowding out the poor goods trains on the limited track capacity. Shades of populism?
While passenger fares may not have been increased, an indirect hike has been effected under fuel adjustment component, increased cancellation, reservation, and tatkal charges. He hopes to earn a gross traffic receipt of Rs 1,43,742 crore, which is an increase of Rs 18,062 crore over the revised estimates of 2012-13.
Providing free wi-fi facility on some trains to cater to the younger generation will be interesting but the impact will depend on the speed of its implementation and effectiveness.
Upgrading the IRCTC website by putting in place the next generation of e-ticketing system to issue 7,200 tickets per minute against 2,000 earlier is undoubtedly a quantum jump. It also promises to handle 1.2 lakh users simultaneously against the present capacity of 40,000 users. No doubt a boon for those who prefer to buy e-tickets!
Bansal admitted that over the last one decade the number of passenger trains had increased by 3,438 to 12,335, undoubtedly contributing to continuous loss from Rs 4,955 crore to Rs 22,500 crore, which had increased to Rs 24,600 crore by 2012-13. It has also resulted in deterioration of services yet he has not hesitated to effect more than 100 new trains extension and increase in frequency.
The 12th Plan target tentatively fixed by the Planning Commission is Rs 5.19 lakh crore, including Rs 1.05 lakh crore as internal resource generation. This is 1.6 times that of the 11th Plan target, which Bansal admits is a tall order as the railways could allocate only Rs 10,000 crore for the first year of the 12th plan.
Generating Rs 95,000 crore for the next four years will need a Herculean effort. It calls for a shift in approach tariff and non-tariff segments. Unfortunately he has not elucidated much on this.
The author is a former member of the Railway Board.