In 2011-12 budget, Mamata Banerjee has to make a fresh attempt at restoring the authority of Railway Board

The challenges before the Railways are mounting. The performance of this giant public-sector carrier is below expectations, and bleak prospects make the picture look more dismal.

The extraneous factors apart, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, if her critics are to be believed, is to blame, to some extent, for putting the Railways in a difficult situation. The balance sheet had gone astray in 2009-10 itself, but few corrective measures seem to have been initiated.

In the 2011-12 budget, Ms. Banerjee has a task: to explain why things have gone wrong in the past two years of her second tenure; and to make a fresh attempt at restoring the rightful authority of the Railway Board which has allegedly been rendered redundant.

It is no surprise that the performance, at both the physical and policy levels, have become a matter of concern to the Planning Commission as well as the Prime Minister, as the Railways don't seem geared up to meet the needs of the growing economy. Construction of new track, electrification and gauge conversion are short of the target. On the operational side, goods carriage has been so tardy that the only way to rake in the budgeted revenue is by increasing cargo fares, including those for transporting some essential items, affecting the common man already reeling under the high inflation.

Things have come to such a pass that the Railways have not made any headway in achieving the Vision 2020 goals; or whatever endeavour it has made has not yielded any result. Things are back to square one even two years after the document was released.

Ms. Banerjee set up a committee of experts, ignoring the Railway Board's objection that the panel would undermine its authority.

The chairman of the committee called the shots at crucial meetings with business leaders, where the Board members, including its chairman, looked hapless. The worst part is that the committee has failed to deliver; officials don't hesitate to say that it has caused an immense damage to the Railways' growth and morale.

The committee has failed to rope in the private sector and mobilise resources for projects, while the other public-private participation initiatives — establishing world-class stations and manufacture of locomotive, coaches and wagon at Kanchrapara and Dankuni in West Bengal — have not made any progress worth the name, says an internal status paper.

The projects at Madhepura and Marhaura in Bihar too are still in the bidding stage. These projects require Rs.3,423 crore. Even the proposed power plant at Adra, West Bengal, at an estimated cost of Rs.7000 crore, is still on the drawing board; the Railway Board still examines the feasibility report.

To make amends, Ms. Banerjee silently set up a committee of officials to prepare a fresh way ahead and draw up new projects. This committee has submitted its report, which is under the consideration of the Board. Ms. Banerjee is likely to reveal it in her budget speech. Capacity-building and cutting fuel cost remains thorny issues.

Moreover, Ms. Banerjee has not been able to find the resources needed to finance the proposed projects. Her repeated entreaties to the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and the Planning Commission have not found the kind of favour she would have expected: only a marginal increase in the budgetary support has been promised.

If the projects have not come up for lack of funds, there are accusations that funds have been diverted. Officials are tight-lipped. Even the socially desirable projects have not received any priority. Development and capital funds did not receive notable allocations in the 2010-11 budget. Safety and security too have suffered.

The promised safety devices, including an anti-collision device, have not been put in place, though fog affected punctuality and caused a spate of accidents, especially in Ms. Banerjee's home State of West Bengal.

The Sainthia accident in July that left 60 persons dead exposed a chink in the armour of the Railway Board. The Chairman, who doubles as Member, Traffic, was on a foreign trip, leaving officials in the lower echelons to cope with the situation. And the Board functioned all through the year with the post of several members remaining vacant.

One hopes Ms. Banerjee reposes more faith in the otherwise well-oiled machinery of the Railways and presents a budget that will have something to write home about.

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