Being an interim budget and a vote on account for four months, Railway Minister Mallikarjun Kharge’s maiden budget could not have gone farther than it has. It was only a holding operation to enable the Indian Railways to spend for the first four months of the next financial year, till a new Railway Minister presents a full-fledged budget for 2014-15. Like the Union government, the Indian Railways has been on autopilot for some time, given the scandals and crises that have confronted UPA-II. Despite these limitations, the Railways have done reasonably well, considering the slowdown in the economy. Freight loading and operations have done well, but there has been a dent in passenger traffic, more so in terms of earnings. Mr. Kharge appears confident of finishing the current fiscal year with a surplus of about Rs.8,000-plus crore. One has to wait and see if the current trend is sustained and if that becomes possible. All that the Minister could announce were 73 new trains, extension of rail linkages to the Northeast, 24 surveys for new lines or doubling projects, and a new generation of superfast trains with ‘dynamic fares.’ He has taken a leaf out of the airlines to introduce this concept of dynamic pricing, where passengers could get tickets at a premium price, depending on demand.
The Railway Minister has projected an annual plan of Rs.64,305 crore, of which Rs.30,223 crore will come from Central budgetary support. There will be no increase in freight or passenger fares. Now that a Railway Tariff Authority will become functional in the coming year, any change in the fare structure will be handled by it, taking the difficult political decisions out of the hands of the Minister or the government. Unfortunately, the operating ratio is still hovering around 90 per cent, creating serious concerns about efficiency. As for the political leadership, unlike UPA-I, where one Railway Minister — Lalu Prasad — continued through the innings, UPA-II has seen a huge turnround of Railway Ministers on account of coalition politics. After 18 years, a Congress Minister has presented the budget, even though it is an interim budget. Given the importance of the Indian Railways, it is to be hoped that the next government would ensure continuity in terms of policy and administration. Mr. Kharge has announced a few ‘green initiatives,’ but expects the private sector to chip in by means of corporate social responsibility programmes. But there have to be innovative plans for the private sector to invest in the railway system. Any future public-private partnership in the Railways will depend on what is on offer, and a careful strategy to attract investments needs to be worked out.