Is there a need for a separate railway budget? Even as railway minister Dinesh Trivedi presented his first rail budget on Wednesday, this is the question most experts have been asking.
A separate railway budget is a tradition that began in 1924 - a time when the railway budget formed three-fourths of the country's budget. Post-Independence, successive governments continued with the practice. Today, the railway budget constitutes less than 15% of the general one.
"It made sense in the post-Independence days to have a separate budget, when the Railways constituted 75% of public transport and 90% of freight. From the predominant role it played back then, it has diminished to a peripheral mode now. There is no justification for a separate rail budget when other sectors, with equal or more importance such as defence, come under the general budget," said Raghu Dayal, first managing director of Container Corporation of India.
In this era of coalitions, the rail ministry is usually allocated to major partners such as RJD's Lalu Prasad Yadav and Trinamool Congress's Mamata Banerjee. "In any case, there is no need for the Railways to go to Parliament for fare hike or project approvals. The Railways Act provides for executive decisions," an expert said. Analysts also pointed out that in the last few years, the finance ministry and planning commission have been getting a greater say in matters relating to the Railways.
However, support for a separate budget appears equally strong. "Situations may have changed, but there can be no denial of the great role that the Railways play in building the nation. It deserves a separate budget," said CM Khosla, former member of the Railway Board.