The road ahead for the Railways

‘Today, we saw how adroitly the general budget was utilised to mask the deficiencies in the railway portion of the Budget!’

Published - February 02, 2017 03:23 am IST

The Indian Railways returned to the pavilion today after batting with aplomb on the economic pitch of the country for 92 long years. While presenting his “historic Budget”, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley took just three minutes to deliver a bulletin on the health of this unique institution, and that was all.

The important statistics reflecting the performance indices of the Railways were consigned to the annexures. Does it sound the death-knell of this once great organisation? Well, we have to wait and watch.

No doubt, the financial health of the Railways was transmitting signals of precariousness for the past two years, but suitable measures to shore up its earnings probably did not click in time.

Low earnings

The fact is that for the first time since 1951, when the Railways were last reorganised, the passenger earnings this year are lagging behind the previous year’s performance. Even the freight earnings are lower than last year’s, a situation which roiled the Railways last in 1978-79. It was expected that the Finance Minister would write a harsh prescription to exorcise the ghosts bedevilling the Railways’ performance. Alas, our fondest hopes were belied.

No regulator

There was no talk of a rail regulator or a restructuring of the Railways.

The plan expenditure has been pegged at ₹1,31,000 crore for 2017-18, ₹55,000 crore of which will be the Gross Budgetary Support. The need now is to assess the benefits accruing from such high levels of capital expenditure.

If this year, 2,800 km of new lines have been commissioned, then why is there a negative growth in the number of passengers (also a first) in the system?

‘Safety fund laudable’

Creation of a lapsable safety fund of ₹1,00,000 crore to be spent in five years, is a laudable step. If spent judiciously, it has the potential to improve the safety of passengers. The last such injection of funds in 2002-03 had a salutary effect on Railways’ safety record.

The Railways should aim at zero loss of life on its tracks by the end of this five-year term. The deaths on the tracks of the Mumbai Suburban network is another area crying for attention. Elimination of all unmanned broad-gauge level-crossings by 2020 is another commendable target.

A separate budget for the Railways was recommended in 1924 because it was feared that it may mask the discrepancies, if any, in the general budget.

The clock has now turned full circle. Today, we saw how adroitly the general budget was utilised to mask the deficiencies in the railway portion of the Budget!

The author is former Chairman, Railway Board.

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