End of populism as commercial viability becomes the government mantra; but it could also be the beginning of profligacy with bullet trains, each worth Rs 60,000 crore, on the anvil
Union Railways Minister Sadananda Gowda, who had administered the bitter pill of a 14.2 percent hike in passenger fares ahead of the Railways Budget, made a rather profound statement on Tuesday: “The medicine appears to be bitter in the beginning, but it will be like nectar in the end.”
Rhetoric apart, in real terms, the Railway Budget marks the end of the decade of ‘golden dilemma’ – the UPA period of choosing between commercial viability and social feasibility. Gowda has opted for the former with the hope that with commercial viability would follow better services.
‘‘The Railways are supposed to earn like a commercial organization and serve like a welfare organization. These two objectives are like the two lines of the railway track, they travel together but never meet,” the minister said while informing the House that the difference between every rupee earned by the railways and its expenditure was just 6 paisa.
He said that with this meagre surplus the railways could not finance the plan outlay for safety, capacity expansion, infrastructure development and seek improvement in services and amenities.
So, Gowda has slammed brakes on any new rail line or expansion project, opting to take a near plan holiday and instead seek private funding in infrastructure through domestic and foreign direct investment, though not in “railway operations.”
The railways minister quantified the magnitude of the problem while diagnosing the ills of the UPA decade. He said that there was more emphasis on sanctioning projects rather than completing these, and even in this area the emphasis was on new lines that did not bring any returns.
In this context, Gowda informed the House that in the last 30 years, as many as 676 projects were sanctioned worth Rs. 157,883 crores. Of these, only 317 projects could be completed and 359 projects remain in the pipeline, which will now require as much as Rs. 182,000 crores to fructify.
Gowda justified FDI, pointing out that internal revenue sources and government funding are insufficient to meet the requirement for growth of the railway sector. Looking ahead, he said that, the railways need more than Rs 9 lakh crores for the diamond golden quadrilateral project, and Rs.60000 crore each for the seven bullet trains, and with a meager surplus of Rs.682 crores, there was a need to look for other options apart from the railways own resources.
He has listed four such routes — getting investible surplus funds from public sector units of the railways, private investment, both domestic and FDI, private public partnerships, and above all a near plan holiday.
He also cited bullet trains, use of information technology, an upgraded internet based reservation system and the creation of Wi-Fi zones on trains and stations as the next clutch of ambitious projects that he intends to kick-start to modernize the railways. All this in natural progression will lead to creation of paperless railways in the next five years.
Interestingly, there is nothing in these proposals that has not been mooted or experimented by one or the other former union railways minister whom Gowda has blamed for the current mess in the railways due to their refusal to raise fares and tariffs.
But Gowda’s most telling observation was: ‘‘It is unheard of — A business that has a monopoly; that has nearly 125 crore customer base; that has 100% sale on advance payment; but is still starved of funds.” He attributed this situation to mismanagement and apathy and not to the obligation to meet social responsibility.
- Automatic closing of doors in both main line and suburban\ trains, as is the case in Metro: Pilot project to be taken up this year.
- Building of boundary walls around stations through PPP mode
- 4,000 women RPF constables to be recruited to ensure safety of women
- Fast elimination of unmanned level crossings
- Foot-over bridges, escalators and lifts at all major stations through PPP route
- Battery-operated cars to help senior citizens and disabled on railway platforms at major stations
- Pre-cooked ready-to-eat meals from well known brands to be introduced
- Food courts at major railway stations; order regional cuisine onboard through email, SMS or smart phone.
- Outsourcing of cleaning activities at 50 major railway \ stations to professional agencies
- CCTVs at stations to monitor cleanliness
- Separate housekeeping wing for cleanliness and sanitation
- Online booking of railway retiring rooms
- Ticket booking through post offices, mobile phones
- Platform, unreserved tickets can be bought online.
- Computer work stations in select trains. WiFi in all A1 category stations and select trains
- RO drinking water in trains and on stations on experimental basis
- More bio-toilets on trains
- Mobile based wake-up call & updates for all passengers
- Trains on special pilgrim circuits