Social responsibility to the fore that was the war cry with which Mamata Banerjee started off her budget speech today. She made no bones about what mattered most to her: development of backward areas, providing the underdeveloped areas better means of communication, and helping the less fortunate to use the railways as a means to better their lives rather than achieve a good rate of return.
In her crusade for the downtrodden, she plans to put the entire resources of the railways at her command to good use.
Apart from a large number of projects providing better rail connectivity, mostly in Bengal, she plans to make it cheaper for the youth to travel up to 1500 kms at only Rs 299 and up to 2500 kms for Rs 399 under the Yuva plan.
In a bid to woo the media, she has provided a discount of 50 per cent as against the existing 30 per cent and allowed them to take their spouses along at the same concession, but only once a year.
Carrying on the project for building world-class stations initiated by her worthy predecessor following the public private partnership (PPP) route (a laudable initiative which unfortunately has not got very far), she has announced a list of 50 new stations. To give the passengers a better deal, the new or upgraded stations will become multi-functional complexes, including a shopping mall, food courts, and waiting halls.
Special emphasis is to be given to the development of stations with a potential for tourism or religious significance. Of course, all this would have to be on surplus railway land, following the mandatory PPP route that may prove to be a tough nut to crack for the Rail Development Authority (RLDA) under her ministry.
Besides a large chunk of the financial outlay for all new projects, West Bengal has been promised that the sick public sector units of Burn Standard near Asansol and Braithwaite in Howrah could be taken over by the railways. She has obviously taken a cue from her predecessor Lalu Prasad Yadav who had arranged for the takeover of Bharat Wagons, another wagon building unit at Mokamah in Bihar.
A new industrial complex is proposed at Dankuni-Majerhat area with the 1230km eastern leg of the dedicated freight corridor from Ludhiana to Son Nagar being extended up to Dankuni in order to serve Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal.
The corridor already serves Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, and UP a point that Mamata emphasised and accordingly West Bengal should also get its share of the windfall that this facility will generate. Undoubtedly an additional 600 kms will considerably hike the cost and may make the project highly unviable but then it does not bother Mamata very much for it would be socially viable. Perhaps, the PPP route could throw up an answer to the nutcracker question of how to make the project financially viable.
In Mamatas scheme of things, it is all systems go for West Bengal. Accordingly, the Calcutta Metro will get priority allotment of funds for all its ongoing as well as proposed extensions, including the much awaited eastwest corridor, from Salt Lake to Howrah to be later extended up to Ramrajatala, near Santragachi.
This 18km line, which is estimated to cost about Rs 4,500 crore and is mostly underground, including a chunnel under the river Hooghly, is currently being executed by the state government. Mamata will be hoping to persuade them to hand it over for speedy execution and integration with the existing Metro.
Mamata also plans to issue a Rs 25 monthly season tickets to all low-income group people who earn less than Rs 1,500 per month under her Izzat programme. It should get her more passenger earnings as thousands of these vendors on suburban services in Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai, and Mumbai. seldom bother to buy any ticket at all. Not a bad move by Mamatadi!
The author is a former member (mechanical), Railway Board