As expected, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee has presented her second budget without any increase in passenger fares or freight tariff. In fact, she announced a marginal reduction in service charges for sleeper and air-conditioned class tickets, as also a cut of Rs.100 per wagon in the freight of food grains and kerosene as a response to rising prices. Otherwise, the 2010-11 budget will be remembered for its intentions and policy pronouncements rather than for specific budgetary measures. For instance, she has promised to come up with a business model for the Railways, to set up a task force for clearing private investment in Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects within 100 days, and to find innovative funding methods to operationalise the ambitious ‘Vision 2020' plan tabled in Parliament. Despite the slowdown in the economy, the Railways hopes to exceed its announced freight loading target of 882 million tonnes this year and touch 890 million tonnes. The target for next year has been set at an ambitious 944 million tonnes. To ward off criticism that she was focussing inordinately on her home State, West Bengal, where elections are due next year, Ms Banerjee has tried to evenly spread the proposed new projects and trains among different regions. She has promised an India-Bangladesh rail link to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore.
Among the positive features is the Minister's promise to add 1000 route-kilometres of railway track this year, as against an annual average of just over 180 km over the past decade. The budget allocation for metro projects has been raised by 55 per cent over last year. A record Plan outlay of Rs.41,426 crore has been proposed for the coming year, but nearly a fourth of it is to come from market borrowings. Although Ms Banerjee repeatedly spoke of the PPP mode to speed up the implementation of the infrastructure projects, she did not indicate any specific framework, and the markets were not enthused. Following the signing of an MoU with the Health Ministry, the Railways announced plans to set up 381 medical diagnostic centres. Five sports academies and a National Authority to plan high speed corridors for passenger traffic, on the lines of the Dedicated Freight corridors, are among the other noteworthy announcements. Perhaps the most significant focus has been on the critical areas of safety and security. Apart from expanding the high-tech Train Protection Warning System, the Minister committed herself to strengthening the Railway Protection Force and raising 12 companies of women in this force. Industry hopes that Ms Banerjee will come up with a detailed framework for PPP before long to realise her vision.