Prabhu’s Developmental Agenda
Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu began presenting his ministry’s budget for the next fiscal year in the Lok Sabha, promising to address the issues concerning all stakeholders — citizens, employees and industry, among others. From sparing passengers a fare hike to introducing onboard kids’ menu, from giving weaker sections dedicated train services to announcing fully air-conditioned smart trains, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu presented, as he himself said, ‘a budget for the country and in the interest of the Railways.’
Three new dedicated trains, besides double-deckers, 50 per cent reservation of lower berths for senior citizens, 33 per cent reservation of seats for women, Wi-Fi at 100 stations this year and at 400 stations over the next two years, commissioning of seven km of broad gauge tracks daily can be considered to be the key highlights of the Railway Budget 2016. Beside ports, connectivity to the North-East has also been given priority with plans to broadgauge Mizoram and Manipur.
Dedicated freight corridors have also been envisaged for the North-South, East-West and East Coast alignments. The North-South corridor will connect Delhi and Chennai, the East-West will connect Kharagpur to Mumbai and the East Coast corridor will be from Kharagpur to Vijayawada.
Prabhu went to the extent of alluring his political opponents when he took a page out of Lalu Yadav’s Railway Budget and brought back kulhads (clay cups) which were shelved by the latter year Rail way Ministers.
A Special Purpose Vehicle, High Speed Rail Corporation, for the much-talked-about Ahmedabad-Mumbai Bullet train was announced with the Maharashtra and Gujarat governments as partners in the venture.
The Railway Minister said his second budget would rely on the three pillars of Nav Arjan, Nav Manak and Nav Sanrachna (new revenue, new norms and new structure). Prabhu also announced seven missions, including activities to increase the average speed of superfast mail trains by 25 kmph in the next five years. The seven missions are: 25 Tonne; Zero Accident; PACE (Procurement and Consumption Efficiency); Raftaar; Beyond book-keeping; Capacity utilization and Mission Hundred that would focus on sidings and freight terminals.
In last year’s Budget, Prabhu desisted from announcing any new trains, which was considered a bold step, but this year it seems that under apparent political and public pressure, Prabhu was compelled to introduce a new category of trains named as Humsafar, Tejas and a double-decker service Uday (Utkrisht Double-Decker Air-Conditioned Yatri).
While Humsafar would be fully air-conditioned third A-C service with an optional catering service, smart train Tejas would move at 130 kmph and above with onboard services such as entertainment, local cuisine and Wi-Fi. Railways will also introduce Uday, which is a double-decker that would ply only at night on the busiest routes.
For the unreserved passengers, the Budget also announced Antyodaya Express and Deen Dayalu coaches. While Antyodaya Express would be a long-distance, fully unreserved, superfast train service for the common man to be operated on extreme busy routes (like New Delhi-Patna or New Delhi-Mumbai), Deen Dayalu coaches would be added to some long-distance trains for unreserved travel. These coaches will also have facilities like potable drinking water and mobile charging units.
As part of improving customer interface, Prabhu proposed interaction and feedback through social media and a dedicated IVRS system and making travel comfortable by generating over 65,000 additional berths and installing 2,500 water vending machines.
Furthermore, IRCTC will manage onboard catering services and stalls at stations in a phased manner. He emphasised that work is underway on installation of a centralised network of 20,000 screens across 2,000 stations for enabling real-time flow of information to passengers and also to unlock huge advertising potential. Prabhu also announced Astha circuit trains to connect pilgrim centres.
The Minister also took a pot-shot at previous administrations for the continued plight of the Indian Railways. “The public transporter’s financial condition is worrisome today because the way Indian Railways was managed in the past. So in order to come out of this situation, we have tried to address the issues,” he said.Presenting the estimates for the next fiscal, he announced a Plan size at Rs1.21 lakh crore with focus on capital expenditure with a mix of various sources of funding in order to ensure the projects are given assured funding.
While gross traffic receipts for the coming fiscal have been fixed at Rs1.84 lakh crore with passenger earning growth pegged at 12.4 per cent and earning target budgeted at Rs 51,012 crore, the freight traffic is pegged at an incremental tariff of 50 million tonnes, anticipating a healthier growth in the core sector of the economy. Operating ratio has been targeted at 92 per cent for 2016-17 as against 90 per cent in the current financial year.
“Every customer is our brand ambassador, the very reason of our existence. Therefore, each time he/she travels, the satisfaction quotient must go up”, Prabhu insisted amidst roaring rounds of thumping even from the Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A loud cheering of Prabhu’s announcement of measures to create employment opportunities for ‘district domiciles’ in Railway projects by the Prime Minister was clearly seen. Prabhu referred to poems of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Harivansh Rai Bachchan and teachings of Gautam Buddha, as he presented the Budget.
He unveiled plans to eliminate all unmanned level crossings on the broad gauge network in next four years for which an action plan, Train Collision Avoidance System, was announced. “A single accident or loss of a single life causes me great sorrow and anguish. We have a long way to go in realising our objective of a zero accident regime,” Prabhu said.
Show of Intent
Prabhu announced a slew of initiatives to expand Railways’ reach and efficiency. These include creation of dedicated rail corridors, improving railway infrastructure and revamping the suburban railways system. In fiscal year 2017, there are 44 new partnership projects planned covering 5,300 km worth Rs 92,714 crore and creation of two locomotive factories with a total investment of Rs 40,000 crore.
But, the big question remains: Without any raise in fares, can Prabhu address the already revenue deficit balance sheet of the Railways, particularly in the face of a massive spending burden on account of 7th Pay Commission implementation, cost over-run of delayed projects and other expenses? Prabhu expects Rs 1.5 lakh crore help from LIC over next five years and going overseas with rupee bonds to raise funds.
Already, Railways is reeling under the heat of subsidising passenger fares with freight segment, a strategy criticised by most experts. Prabhu has hinted that the freight rates will be revised. In 2015-16, Railways has suffered a loss of Rs 30,000 crore on account of subsidising passenger fares. Gross budgetary support, Prabhu expects, to be around Rs 40,000 core in FY17. Prabhu has set a gross traffic earnings target of Rs 1.85 lakh crore.
This budget shows the government’s intent to transform Railways as a crucial engine to economic growth and change the country as a high-growth manufacturing economy among emerging markets.
Prabhu has increased the investment target for fiscal year 2017 to Rs 1.21 lakh crore, up 21 per cent, as against Rs 1, 00,011 crore in the last year. This, however, is less than a jump of 52 per cent budgeted last year. The Minister wants to achieve an operating ratio of 92 per cent in 2016-17 as against 90 per cent this year (Budget estimate 88.5 per cent).
The new schemes are
- 100 rail stations to get Wi-Fi this year.
- Indian Railways will provide 17,000 bio-toilets on trains.
- Additional toilets at 475 stations before 2016-17 ends.
- E-catering services to be extended to 408 stations.
- Developing Delhi-Chennai, Kharagpur-Mumbai and Kharagpur-Vijayawada freight corridors on a priority basis.
- To create rail auto hub in Chennai.
- Watchdog proposed for railways.
- FM radio entertainment on trains.
- With new uniforms, railway porter will be called Sahayaks.
- Half of lower berths reserved for senior citizens.
- Baby food at stations, child menu on all trains.
- Local cuisine to be available on trains.
- Ticket cancellation through phone calls.
- To install 1,780 automatic ticketing machines.
- CCTV surveillance in all stations in a phased manner.
- Local art to be highlighted at railway stations.
- Dedicated freight corridors envisaged for North-South, East-West and East Coast alignments.
Delhi in Prabhu’s eye
While presenting the Rail Budget for 2016-2017, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu announced the revival of the almost-defunct Ring Railways of Delhi-NCR, a move that hopes to help reduce high traffic congestion and curb the rising air pollution levels in the Capital.
While announcing a slew of initiatives, Prabhu said that all the 21 stations of the Ring Railways will be modernised under PPP model. He added that the entire work plan shall come out in the next four months. “We will focus more on Ring Railways and in the next four months the entire work plan should be charted out,” said Suresh Prabhu during the Rail Budget speech.
“Delhi, our national Capital, is under severe stress from rising pollution levels and can be provided relief by reviving the Ring Railway system comprising 21 stations. We will partner with the State Government to develop this infrastructure,” says the Rail Budget.
“The State Government’s cooperation is hugely required for reviving the Ring Railways. It will be a boon for the public and provide the much need relief from buses and Metros. The Delhi government shares the onus to ensure better connectivity to get public transport once the passengers get off the Ring Railways. With the collaborative effort, Ring Railways can be a success,” said Arun Arora, Divisional Railways Manager, Delhi Division of Northern Railway, while talking to the pioneer.
The average daily ridership comes to a measly 3,700, earning the exchequer somewhere near Rs1 lakh a day. Ridership has continuously gone down over the years. The 35.36km stretch connects 21 stations, including 12 halts and nine block stations. These include Lajpat Nagar, Lodhi Colony, Sarojini Nagar, Safdarjung, Chanakyapuri, Patel Nagar, Nizamuddin and Pragati Maidan.
Railway needs private money not privatisation
This is one thing which Prabhu highlighted earlier as well when he said Railways needed private money but not privatisation. But, that also puts more pressure on the government to find enough resources to push Railways’ development agenda. He spoke in detail about his plans to invite public-private partnership (PPP) contracts to develop railway projects.
Another point which can be made here is that by promising more efficiency and concentrating on customer experience, the Minister wants to make Railways more passenger-friendly. Prabhu listed out a host of initiatives in the Budget such as improving the customer experience through the help of technology. “It is the people who are the soul of Indian Railways,” Prabhu said.
Changing the game
The Rail Budget was so far taken to be a presentation of accounts of preceding year and current financial year, achievements, if any, announcement of new trains and new tracks, taking care of VVIP areas and mandatory lip service for enhancing passenger amenities and safety concerns but Modi-chosen Prabhu has changed the game.
In an interview to Firstpost, Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sinha, an IIT-BHU alumnus, said: “The Rail Budget is not about announcement of new trains and number of stops a particular train will have. It should never have been like this. It means much more than this. Rail connects people in all parts of the country and carries persons of all hues, all strata. The Railway minister has made right decisions. The Prime Minister is very keen to see that the face of Indian Railways is changed for the good.” He further said last year several new trains had been started. This means that to run a new train, the Minister does not need to wait for a year and announce that in the
Rail Budget, which eventually means that there will be no political upheaval in Parliament over starting of a particular train to appease someone’s constituency.
“We, in the Railways, must provide to the citizens of this country a rail system that they can be proud of — a system free from capacity constraints, a system that is efficient and predictable, a system that is sparkling and pristine, where the people of my country feel at ease, where there is plenty of choice in every sphere of activity, and the ease of doing business pervades the entire railway ecosystem. In short, a system that is capable of taking care of its own needs financially and otherwise. By 2020, we look forward to meeting the long-felt desires of the common man—reserved accommodation on trains being available on demand; time-tabled freight trains with credible service commitments; high-end technology to significantly improve the safety record; elimination of all unmanned level crossings; punctuality increased to almost 95 per cent; increased average speed of freight trains to 50 kilometres per hour and mail/express trains to 80 kilometres per hour; semi high-speed trains running along the golden quadrilateral and zero direct discharge of human waste,” Railway minister Suresh Prabhu having said all this presents a rosy picture for the time to come.
Railway minister Suresh Prabhu has announced host of schemes which are more customer-centric. In order to fulfil the social obligations towards differently-abled, senior citizens and women travellers, the railways have introduced lots of schemes. One-time registration for availing concessions while booking tickets online, online booking of wheelchairs and Braille-enabled new coaches for the differently-abled are some of the other schemes. Also, the quota of lower berths has been increased for senior citizens and women.
By Nilabh Krishna