Union railways minister Mallikarjun Kharge can be accused of much else but not of succumbing to the temptation of playing to the gallery during his maiden budget speech on Wednesday.
Mr Kharge’s predecessors Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar never missed such opportunities to make big, populist announcements: If Mr Prasad reduced passenger fares and created two new railway divisions, Mr Kumar announced ‘Sampark Kranti’ trains.
Presenting the interim budget for four months in the Lok Sabha, the UPA 2 government’s last, Mr Kharge stuck to the script. His announcement that the Indian Railways plan to run 72 new trains (including 17 money-spinners christened ‘Jai Hind Express’) and semi-high speed trains were aberrations in an otherwise no-frills budget speech.
Mr Kharge’s eight-month tenure at the helm of the ministry, which he took over in June 2013 from CP Joshi, has been difficult. The operating ratio (money spent against every rupee earned) of the Indian Railways has climbed from 87.8% to 90.8% this fiscal. There has been a radical fall in passenger earnings, while fuel costs have spiralled. As a result of shortfall in earnings, the ministry’s plan outlay for the current year has been cut by almost `4,000 crore. The annual rail plan has been pegged at `64,305 crore with a budgetary support of `30,223 crore.
Reading out the budget amid the din over the Telangana issue, Mr Kharge, as anticipated, focussed on the railway’s achievements during the 10 years of the UPA’s rule: Rs. 35,000 crore invested in providing rail connectivity to the Northeast; the breakthrough achieved in enabling a rail link connecting the Jammu region with the Kashmir Valley; the rapid progress being made to execute the UPA 2 government’s flagship scheme of building dedicated freight corridors on the country’s eastern and western flanks.
Clearly, Mr Kharge is not in the race for the ‘Most Popular Railway Minister’ crown. So there were no announcements of fare cuts or chai in kullads for aam aadmi or luxury coaches for super-rich passengers. Straight and simple was Mr Kharge’s theme and he stuck to it beautifully.