The first railway budget of this BJP-led NDA government is a cosmetic exercise, high on rhetoric and low in substance. The emphasis had been in high-sounding bullet trains and commercial freight corridors with no budgetary calculations to back up. The entire emphasis is to attract FDI and to undertake all further expansion and modernization through the ignominious PPP route.
The sub-text of the budget is designed to impose greater burdens on the common people who need the railways the most and who use it the most. Apart from the pre-budget hikes, which bring in a revenue of Rs. 8,000 crores, this budget has linked the future prices for travel with the fuel adjustment factor. This means that with every increase in the price of fuel, the cost of travel will automatically go up. Therefore, there will be a continuous increasing burden on the people.
Further, experience of FDI and PPP in other infrastructure sectors like airports and seaports has shown how the costs to the consumer have grown exponentially. This is now bound to happen with the railways imposing further burdens on the people. Even these calculations of PPP are completely unrealistic as the budget itself informs that the last year’s target of Rs. 6,000 crore through the PPP route has not been realised. The budget, therefore, is a blueprint for the privatization of Indian railways at the cost of the Indian people who will bear the brunt of the profit maximization by the private sector and FDI.
As a result, the social responsibility of the Indian Railways, of catering to the common people and making backward areas accessible is being given the go-by.
Far from addressing the question of improving the health of the Indian Railways, the budget has shown that the operating ratio is now 95 per cent, i.e., 95 out of every 100 rupees earned is being spent. This has come down by 2.7 per cent from an earlier operating ratio of around 90 per cent. In spite of this, the Railway Minister has announced that the market borrowing will be lower despite the target of internal resource generation being short by over Rs. 2,000 crores.
Though the Railway Minister mentioned that of the 99 new projects sanctioned during the last decade, only one has been completed, he failed to inform any roadmap for many of the important new projects that were designed to perform the most important role of the Indian Railways in discharging its social responsibility towards the country and the people. Clearly, the future expansion of the railways has been halted.
Though there has been a lot of talk on improving the safety standards, nothing substantial has been suggested. Further, there is no indication that the close to 3 lakh vacant posts, mainly concerning the maintenance of safety standards, will be filled.
In sum, it is clear that this government is relying entirely on attracting FDI in the railways and large-scale privatization rather than discharging the government’s responsibility towards improving the health of the Indian Railways so vital to our economy and the people. The net result would be increasing burdens on the people and the unfortunate further lowering of the safety standards.