Off track

The interim Railway Budget for 2013-14 presented in Parliament by railway minister Mallikarjun Kharge on Wednesday, as expected, did not contain any surprises considering that the announcement of Lok Sabha elections is just a few days away

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But the hooliganism indulged by some ruling party members from Andhra Pradesh, including four Union ministers during the budget presentation, left a bitter taste in the mouth. Amidst continuous din, Kharge was forced to cut short his speech after barely 20 minutes — which has rarely happened — as the MPs from Andhra raised continuous slogans in the well of the House over the Telangana issue. That Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi were mute witnesses to the din was a pathetic commentary on their leadership and how this Lok Sabha has virtually been hijacked by disruptive elements.

Kharge, on his part, left the passenger fares and freight rates untouched, but the independent Rail Tariff Authority that he has proposed and the dynamic pricing of tickets already introduced, will hopefully bring in much needed revenue to the railways. He also spoke of involvement of the private sector and the FDI in the modernisation plan, but they will obviously have to be given a concrete shape by the new government. There is a proposal in the budget for providing rail connectivity to Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh with the mainland which was long over due. Kharge has set an ambitious freight traffic target of 1,101 million tonnes, an increase of 49.7 million tonnes over the current year, but it cannot be achieved without efficient management of freight movement.

A spate of recent train accidents, including collisions and accidental fires, have besmirched the Indian Railways’ safety record. Kharge spoke of measures to introduce indigenously developed Train Collision Avoidance System and Vigilance Control Device in all electric and diesel locomotives, but clearly, many innocent lives could have been saved had the railways not been so lethargic in taking these basic safety measures earlier, that too when the equipment was available indigenously. The move to replace the LPG cylinders in the on-train pantries with electrical induction cooking appliances is also welcome as it reduces the chances of fire mishaps. Kharge’s tenure as railway minister was too short. A full-fledged budget after the elections under a new railway minister will hopefully take a more holistic view of the problems and bring the Indian Railways on the right track. 

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