Mamata Banerjee's third Railway budget in UPA-II contains few surprises: full of populist symbolism and sops but weak in substance. She made it clear to Parliament that the Indian Railways was passing through a very difficult phase financially but has failed to come up with any credible solution. With elections to the West Bengal Assembly round the corner, there was no question of the leader of the anti-Left coalition altering the fare structure. As the freight rates were raised a couple of months ago, she has left them untouched. Nevertheless, she proposed an increase in the annual plan outlay, from just over Rs.40,000 crore in the current year to Rs.57,630 crore in 2011-2012. This would involve a market borrowing of Rs.20,000 crore. The opposition, especially the Left parties and Ms Banarjee's predecessor in the Railway Ministry, Lalu Prasad, were quick to point out that the implementation record of the Railway Minister has left a lot to be desired. The truth is that most of the projects she announced in the last budget and a number of others under execution have failed to get the budgetary support necessary for early completion. Ms Banerjee's response to her critics is the proposal to set up a Central Organisation for Project Implementation, with four regional offices, to keep a tab on progress.
Making no bones about her preference for her home State, Ms Banerjee announced a metro coach factory in Singur and a Rail Industrial Park in Nandhigram district — two areas where her party, the Trinamool Congress, launched violent agitations, allying with extremists, to prevent major private industries from coming up. In addition, the Kolkata Metro is set for expansion and more services. In keeping with recent trends, Ms Banerjee has lowered the eligibility age for women from 60 to 58 years to avail themselves of the fare concession for senior citizens, besides increasing the concession rate from 30 per cent to 40 per cent for both men and women. A special package is on the anvil for the North Eastern region, with a mission to connect all these States except Sikkim in seven years. The proposal to develop an integrated suburban railway network for Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Ahmedabad is welcome. The really worrying aspect is the worsening operating ratio — which indicates how much the Railways spend to earn Rs.100 — to 92.1. For the Railways to be considered healthy enough, this figure should be in the 70s. If Nitish Kumar laid the foundation for the turnaround of the Railways, Mr. Lalu Prasad presided over the best years. What can Ms Banerjee claim at the end of the day?