The Bargachia-Champadanga project, included in the rail budget of 1974-75, remains partially incomplete, as does the Tamluk-Digha-Deshpran-Nandigram line, first conceived in the budget of 1984-85.
The New Alipur-Akra-Uluberia-Bahrahat line — included in the budget of 1996-97 — has also been shuffling along.
What is unstated about these projects is that such railway lines in West Bengal — as elsewhere in the country — have proceeded at an excruciatingly slow pace because these are ‘material modification’ projects.
Material modification lines, in rail jargon, refers to projects that past railway ministers have sanctioned “out of the rail budget” through an executive order and without approval of the Planning Commission. These are extensions of existing tracks and do not have an additional budgetary outlay.
The statistical position of the Kolkata-based Eastern Railways is revealing: Out of 104 ongoing or pending projects in this railway zone, as many as 47 are those of ‘material modifications’.
Of this zone’s total throw-forward liability of `25,000 crore, material modification projects alone account for `15,000 crore, including 25 projects worth `4,000 crore for the construction of new lines.
“These projects have been doomed from the start,” said a senior official.
In all, rail projects costing approximately `5 lakh crore are pending across the country, including 406 projects costing `1,85,221 crore of new lines, gauge conversion and doubling/tripling of lines. Up to 40% of these are estimated to be material modification projects.
Ahead of railways minister Suresh Prabhu’s first budget presentation on February 26, the question is being asked: Will the railways minister bite the bullet by scrapping or pruning the pending list; or at least doing away with the material modification projects?
The Dinesh Trivedi-headed parliamentary standing committee on railways is in the process of finalising its recommendations on the matter.
Land acquisition issues and former railways minister Mamata Banerjee’s policy of railway jobs to land losers have complicated matters and slowed down the pace of execution of railway projects, but the issues are essentially structural.
In the two Kolkata-based railway zones, certain projects have been known as “ek lakhia” lines, which have been annually allocated a paltry `1 lakh to keep them alive.
Smaller works coming under the powers of the general managers and divisional railway managers have been allocated an annual sum of just about `1,000 each.
“It is a mockery of the entire system,” an official admitted.
Prabhu appears to have made a small start at reforming the system by authorizing the GMs to finalise tenders."The problem is that the zones deal with small-value tenders, in any case. The GMs still do not have the powers to finalise detailed work estimates of projects, the files of which keep moving about in railway board offices for months and years on end. The zonal powers to re-appropriate funds from one head to another are also extremely limited. Nothing has changed," an official said.