There has never been a dearth of committees and reviews in the government set up, and the Indian Railways is no exception to this. Look at the number of high-level committees, status reports, white papers, expert committees, safety reviews and what have you. The catch lies in the acceptance and implementation of the recommendations of these panels. The Kakodkar high-level railway safety review committee, which submitted its recommendations to Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi on Friday, is the latest addition to the list. It may not have said anything new or different from the past but it has chosen to tell the Railways how to mobilise the funds for a long overdue, massive safety upgrade programme over the next five years, with an estimate for Rs.1 lakh crore. What needs to be done for toning up railway safety is already well known: modern signalling, doing away with unmanned level crossings, replacing over-aged assets, and even introducing a new generation of coaches. Again, there is nothing new in recommending such a major programme. Way back in 2001, the Government of India, at the instance of the Indian Railways, set up a Special Railway Safety Fund to wipe out the arrears in major on-going projects such as track renewal, rolling stock, construction of over-bridges and so on. A minor surcharge was levied on users.
What's new about the Kakodkar committee is that it tells the Railways how to generate that level of funding. But is anybody listening? The committee has broken up the Rs.1 lakh crore programme into different components: Rs.20,000 crore for advanced signalling, Rs.50,000 crore for elimination of all level crossings, Rs.10,000 crore for new-design coaches, and Rs.20,000 crore for maintenance of safety-related infrastructure. The committee has suggested among other things, a safety cess on passengers to generate about Rs.5,000 crore every year, and doing away with the dividend payment of Rs.5,000 crore to the Government of India. After Nitish Kumar brought the Railways back from the brink, and Lalu Prasad took all the credit for prudent financial management, Mamata Banerjee had virtually brought the Indian Railways to a situation of a financial collapse. Even now, her nominee in Rail Bhavan, Dinesh Trivedi, seems utterly unwilling to raise passenger fares. For 10 years, there has been no revision. And he expects the Finance Minister to grant him a budget support of Rs.20,000 crore or more next month. It is time the Planning Commission and Finance Ministry took a serious look at the state of the Railways. For if India's biggest employer is unwilling to take even small steps towards better managing its finances, there is no sense in it having a separate annual budget.