Railway Minister Lalu Prasad flagged off the government’s Election Express on Tuesday, unveiling a super-populist budget that handed out poll-year goodies to practically every section of society.
The budget slashed passenger fares for all classes of travel, upped existing discounts for students and women senior citizens, and introduced discounts for new categories of travelers like AIDS patients and national honour winners.
<b1>The cut in AC fares could eat into the business of low-cost airlines, while the reduction of non-AC fares takes the railways closer, at least symbolically, to a larger chunk of India’s population.
The budget held general freight rates at existing levels, actually cut freight rates for petrol and diesel by 5%, and introduced several new concession schemes.
Lalu’s Railways now provide probably the only service in India that has not got costlier for a full five years. And Lalu has become the first Railway Minister who never raised passenger fares.
The budget introduced a wide range of passenger amenities and facilities to make travel convenient and comfortable, especially for the aam aadmi.
Among the notable initiatives: 10 new Garib Raths or poor man’s AC trains, ticket booking on mobile phones and through automatic vending machines, electronic display boards on trains and stations, and discharge-free green toilets on trains.
The Railways are in fine financial health. In 2007-08, they recorded their highest-ever cash surplus (or profit): an impressive Rs 25,000 crore. The operating ratio — ratio of expenses over income, by which profitability is measured — is expected to be around 76.3%, the best in the past four decades.
This is especially significant because the Railways employ a staggering 14 lakh people — the world's biggest employer by far — and touch the lives of many crores of people.
Given the enormous reach of the Railways-they ferry nearly 1.7 crore people across the country every day and transport enormous quantities of freight that have a direct bearing on India's macro-economy-the unabashed populism of Lalu's budget is likely to help the UPA's common man-friendly image.
The document that Lalu finalised in consultation with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister P Chidambaram, in fact, represents the political statement of a regime facing 10 assembly polls this year and Lok Sabha elections in 2009.
The ability to hold fares comes as an important statement in the season of distressing all-round price-rise. The UPA's commitment to minorities and underprivileged groups too finds reflection. The budget provides for a special cell in the Railway Board and zonal railways to take care of minority interests. Urdu has been introduced as a medium of examination for Group D posts in certain states.
Bihar, Lalu's home state, received special attention, with as many as 11 new lines and several new trains. Politically, the move is an attempt to boost the prospects of the RJD in the Lok Sabha elections.
Second class fares cut by 5% beyond 50 km
Third AC fares cut by 3%
II AC fares cut by 4%
I AC fares slashed by 7%
5% cut in petrol, diesel freight
All long-distance trains to have public address systems
All new coaches made of stainless steel by 09/10
Multi-level parking to be built at 30 large stations
Looking at enabling reservations through mobile phones
To introduce environmentally friendly toilets in 36,000 coaches for Rs 40 bn
Railways will be linked by Mar '09 to call centres
Digital display boards at railway stations
All long-distance trains to display estimated time of arrival at all times
Multi-purpose smart Mumbai cards to be introduced
Ticket reservation possible from anywhere
Railways profit due to UPA govt policies
Additional Rs 20 bn earned on freight services
Achieved 790 tonnes pay-load target
Coolies promoted to gangmen
New weekly Puri-Darbhanga express
New Itarsi-Katni passenger train daily
New daily Ahmedabad-Patan express
Chennai-Salem new train daily
Ranchi-Bhagalpur new train tri-weekly
Indore-Udaipur via Ratlam new train tri-weekly