Pedestrian budget

The Railway Budget for 2013-14 presented by minister Pawan Kumar Bansal in Parliament on Tuesday is a pedestrian effort which does not offer a single innovative idea to take the country’s transportation behemoth on a modern course. Even as he raised the freight rates marginally by around five per cent and left the basic fares untouched, he ensured that the passengers would indeed pay more for their tickets. This, he has done by way of marginal increase in supplementary charge for superfast trains, reservation fee, clerkage, cancellation and Tatkal charges. For the first time, freight rates have been linked to fuel adjustment component (FAC). As the minister says, freight rates can be revised twice a year. This can set off inflationary trend. There is a proposal to link FAC with passenger fares but given the sensitivity involved, the minister has refrained from doing so.

A review of financial performance of Indian Railways brings out some glaring facts which are a matter of concern. Targets on at least three key fronts that bring revenue to the railway corpus were revised downwards during the year: Freight loading target from 1,025 million tonne to 1,007 MT, freight earning target from Rs 89,339 crore to Rs 85,976 cr which is a reduction of Rs 3,383 cr and revenue from passenger fares at Rs 32,500 cr which is a reduction of Rs 3,573 cr from the budgetary estimate. These, despite a fare hike effected in January, 2013 and about 20 per cent freight rate hike in March, 2012. The increase in freight rates is beginning to have a negative impact on revenues, but the Railways remains blind to it. The passengers wouldn’t mind a rational, steady increase in fare every year as long as the accruals go towards visible improvement in amenities at stations and on trains, but so-called populism hasn’t permitted successive railway ministers to show the courage and wisdom to do so. Thus, there’s no escape from continued ‘ghettoisation’ of the railways, which is an anathema in the 21st century.

The brighter side of the picture is the several e-initiatives that the minister has embarked upon. Booking tickets online is going to be easier and faster given the complaints for long from passengers of congestion in the system – Bansal has promised to bring in a ‘paradigm shift’  in internet rail ticketing. Shortly, SMS alerts to passengers providing updates on reservation status is being rolled out. Like the feature in every rail budget, this year too there are a host of new trains - 27 new passenger and 67 express trains.

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