Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee on Thursday ruled out privatisation of the railways and asserted that the Private-Public Partnership (PPP) model would be pursued to push projects and engage in commercial utilisation of land to generate revenue.

Replying to the debate on the Railway budget in the Rajya Sabha, Ms. Banerjee said the Ministry was losing 40 per cent revenue due to agitations, bandhs and other such activities in various parts of the country.

While admitting that the railways was the lifeline of the nation and people had great expectations from it, she said the Ministry did not have funds to fulfil all the demands. At least Rs 1 lakh crore was needed for the pending projects.

“Where will the money come from? It will not drop from the heavens,” she said. Without long-term planning and execution of projects, it would not be possible for the railways to start new trains and decongest traffic.

The House returned the Appropriation bills concerned, as passed by the Lok Sabha, enabling the railways to withdraw money from the exchequer for a part of 2010-11 and some authorisations for the current fiscal and 2008-09.

Ms. Banerjee said the railways took pride in its 14 lakh employees. The Ministry had consulted the employees unions on various issues, including the PPP model and commercial utilisation plans.

The Ministry had set up a task force for land utilisation. This would prevent encroachment of vacant land. As per estimates, the railways had 43,000 hectares of surplus land and the Rail budget envisaged its commercial utilisation.

Defending the PPP model, she said that a decade ago she cleared the Pipava port project. By replicating such model, the railways could utilise land to develop tourist sites, pilgrimage circuits and spur economic activity.

The Ministry planned to set up a cell to develop business opportunities with the private sector. It would seek permission from the Prime Minister and the Planning Commission to have a single-window clearance system for PPP projects under short timelines.

Responding to criticism of the proposal to set up two more drinking water bottling plants, she said it was aimed at supplying water at inexpensive rates. As for passenger amenities, she said the railways was working on it. Complaints about cleanliness were being looked into.

Right now there were over 17,000 unmanned railway crossings, she said and urged members to request their respective State governments to invest their share so that these level crossings were secured.

On corruption in the railways, she said there was need to strengthen vigilance and take further measures to deter people from indulging in it. At the same time, laws needed to be more stringent to punish touts.

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