Despite delivering probably the longest railway budget speech the budgetary proposals do not evoke any sense of well being in the Indian railways. Having hiked the passenger and freight charges several times prior to the budget, it was only natural that further hikes in the budget were not announced. The people of India were hoping that the budget will address the issue of expanding railway connectivity and take substantive measures for improving passenger amenities. On both these counts the budget was very disappointing.
Most importantly, given the alarming rise in rail accidents it was hoped that better measures for ensuring safety standards and financial allocations for enhancing safety measures would be taken up. Unfortunately, the budget does not generate any greater confidence amongst the Indian people for whom the railways constitute the most important link in the country’s connectivity and therefore its unity.
The most worrisome aspect of the budget concerns the financial health of the railways. Last year’s performance has been much below the anticipated earnings by the railways. Both freight and passenger earnings have significantly dropped and the gap between the budgetary estimates and the revised estimates of railway revenue is around a massive Rs. 17,000 crores. Further, the railways require around Rs. 32,000 crores to fulfill the obligations and recommendations of the 7th Pay Commission. This means that the railways are starting the financial year with a shortfall of nearly Rs. 50,000 crores. This shortfall, the railway minister hopes, will be bridged and surplus funds would be available for improving the railways through a massive dose of public-private partnership and the selling of the assets currently held by the Indian railways. The PPP model has globally proved to be a failure in improving the railways all across the world. Selling assets is like selling family silver to meet the day to day expenditure. This makes neither economic nor common sense.
Consequently, the grandiose projects announced by the railway minister, will in all probability, remain on paper like most of the earlier announcements made during the recent years.
Another disturbing aspect is that there is very little in the budget for protecting, leave aside improving the welfare of the railway workers. The railway minister praised the railway workers as the mainstay of the Indian Railways. This however appears mere lip service. Most of the services have already been privatized and the remaining few are also to enter the PPP mode. The workers discharging these services do not have any protection and in some cases are not even paid the stipulated minimum wages. This does not augur well for the future health of the Indian railways.
The CPI(M) has all along demanded that the Indian Railways must maintain its role in providing better services to the people as its foremost objective and not be reduced into a mere accounting exercise balancing its revenues and expenditures. We will have to wait for the general budget to see if there is any significant improvement in the budgetary support for the railways. Given the fiscal constraints and the overall economic slowdown in the Indian economy under this BJP government this however will not be forthcoming.
The consequent increased burdens on the people, the privatization of its assets and the abdication of the responsibility towards its workforce together mounts a further attack on the Indian people, who are crying for relief. (Press Statement by CPI(M)