The Indian Railways’ success story under Lalu Prasad Yadav continued for the third successive year, his “turnaround mantra” yielding bounties in the shape of reduced passenger fares, increased amenities and freight concessions aimed at curbing inflation.
Lalu’s thrust was to make rail travel cheaper, safer and comfortable while agumenting volumes - in passenger and freight terms.
<b1>The annual 8-10 per cent traffic growth is undoubtedly a burden on the existing infrastructure in the short term, admitted Railway Board Chairman J P Batra. He said the issue was being addressed by constructing nine freight corridors during the 11th Five Year Plan.
Rail Bhawan officials said the Budget speech the Minister made in the Lok Sabha for 2007-2008 amid din caused by the Opposition on the Bofors issue, would be heard loud and clear across India.
The fare cuts in the AC I and AC-2 Tier classes have been reduced for the second year in succession. But the special feature of proposals for the current year was the one rupee cut for second class passengers in all non-suburban ordinary and non super-fast mail and express trains. These fares had hitherto been left untouched.
Though fare reduction across all classes of high capacity new design reserved coaches was also announced , it will not come into effect immediately as these coaches will be ready only by the end of the year, officials stated later.
“We hadn’t increased fares over the past two years. But this time we have done better by cutting down the fares,” Lalu told newspersons after presenting the Budget he repeatedly hailed as one for the poor.
The Budget’s “pro-poor” tenor was reinforced by the promised increase - from four to six - in the number of unreserved coaches in all new trains.
As the increase in traffic volume to reduce the per unit operating cost is at the core of Lalu’s turnaround campaign, eight hundred more coaches will be attached to popular trains. The unreserved second class compartments will now have cushioned berths in place of wooden benches. “Lakdi ki patti ko hata kar cushion sleeper lagaya jayega,” he announced amid thumping of desks by the Treasury benches.
Among the other measures introduced for making train travel more comfortable for ordinary passengers were the facility for reservation of lower berths for senior citizens and women above 45 years travelling alone as well as provision of special coaches for physically challenged people.
There would also be separate unreserved vendor coaches in sections frequented by milk and vegetable vendors and other retail sellers.
Safety and Security
Besides introducing a large number of other passenger amenities and development of 300 more model stations, several provisions have also been made for improving railway safety and security, following the blasts in Mumbai local trains and Samjhauta Express.
These include increasing the number of sniffer dogs, door frame and metal detectors for explosives, close circuit TVs and video cameras and filling up 8,000 vacancies in the Railway Protection Force (RPF).
The Rs 31,000 crore annual plan, the largest ever, aims at maintaining high growth in traffic by focusing on early completion of projects, improvement of traffic facilities and enhancing capacity in various sections. About 500 km of new lines will be laid while gauge conversion work will be taken up on 1800 km.
Among the important new projects to be taken up would be an electric locomotive works unit at Madhepura and a wagon bogie complex at Dalmia Nagar, both in Lalu’s home state Bihar. Besides these, to meet the shortfall of train bogies, a joint venture manufacturing unit is to be set up with Kerala Government in Alleppey.
As the Railways’ financial turnaround is largely based on its freight volumes, an attempt has been made to boost business by introducing a variety of discount and relaxation schemes. While there has been no across the board increase in freight costs, the rates for transporting diesel and petrol have been cut by 5 per cent as an anti-inflationary measure.
In his speech, the Minister told the House that he took pride in the fact that without imposing any burden on the common man, the Railways had succeeded in achieving its target of Rs 20,000 crore cash surplus as against Rs 14,700 crore last year.
“By rendering an unprecedented surplus inspite of the reduction in passenger fares, we have disproved the myth that Railways was sinking into a financial crisis due to social obligations,” he said while pointing out that the turnaround strategy was based on a “perfect blend of commercial wisdom and empathy for the people”.