Friday, March 5, 2010

Politics, Populism and Partnership

Sachin Tendulkar’s legendary innings against South Africa might have occupied most of the front-page space of every newspaper Thursday, leaving Mamata Banerjee’s Rail Budget to a corner, but the celebratory mood over the maestro’s iconic double century should not discourage us from taking a critical look at the Budget Banerjee presented in Parliament.

Now that the proposals and the minister’s future plans for the Railways are out in the open, as a routine the Congress, the ruling party, has welcomed the Budget, while the Left, Mamata’s bête noire, and the BJP, her former ally but now opposition, have criticised it. The key feature of the Budget, as the media have already reported, is the minister’s decision to hold the fares and freight charges. She even cut the freight rate of some essential commodities -- grains and kerosene – keeping in mind the rising food inflation.

This was widely expected. Though the Planning Commission had recommended a revision of the fares to streamline the railway’s revenues, Banerjee, already in an election- mood for the Left-controlled West Bengal, avoided biting the bullet. Speaking to reporters at the Rail Bhavan before the Budget presentation, Banerjee used the famous Lincoln quote to express her “generosity” towards the public: “Railways is of the people, by the people and for the people,” said an upbeat Banerjee, dressed in white cotton sari and with a cream shawl over her shoulders.

Did she keep her promises? From a common man’s point of view, the minister’s decision to leave the fares untouched is a great relief. Furthermore, the cut in freight rates on essential commodities will likely lead to an ease in the food inflation, which is hovering around 18 percent now. Banerjee has also announced 52 new long distance trains and most of the new trains she announced in her last budget will be flagged off by March this year. Moreover, the Railways plans to add 1,000 km of tracks every year (pretty ambitious, isn’t it considering the current average of 180kms?) and 25,000 km by 2020.

Where’s the fund?
So far so good. But what about the Railway’s modernization? From where will the ministry mobilize resources to expand the world’s second largest rail network? What plans does Banerjee have to stabilise the finances of the public sector undertaking, the largest employer in the country? Sorry to say that Banerjee left many key questions unanswered. “In China, the railway system becomes bigger every year, in India, Railways Minister’s speeches become longer by the year,” writes a Business daily in its editorial on Banerjee’s budget, painting the grim picture of the Indian Railways.

It’s worth noting that the Budget comes almost three months after China, the largest Asian economy and a potential competitor for India in many fields, launched the world’s fastest train. Though Banerjee has announced 10 more Durontos, she failed to roll out any massive plan to modernise the railways and improve the security of the passengers. Instead of focusing the security issue, he’s proposed to spend massively on non-core areas like setting up sports academies, cultural centres and bottling water plants. Banerjee’s decision to slash the Railway Safety Fund by Rs 597 crore from last year has also drawn flak from political quarters.

Moreover, several of the key infrastructure projects the minister announced are for West Bengal – over half a dozen factories and workshops, two museums, and one cultural centre among others. In a bid to keep the Congress leadership in good rapport, Banerjee has proposed a coach factory in Rae Bareli, the Lok Sabha constituency of the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and a drinking water plant in Amethi, which the Congress heir apparent Rahul Gandhi represents in the House.

Financial mismatch
The financials are also not so promising. The Railway’s net revenue after dividend is expected to fall to a mere Rs 951 crore this fiscal from the earlier budget estimation of Rs 2,642 crore and from Rs 4456 crore during Lalu’s time. The operating ratio (working expenses as a portion of traffic receipts) for 2009-10 is 94.7 percent, up from 92.5 percent projected earlier. This stands is in sharp contrast to 75.9 percent in 2007-08.

Her tilt towards public-private partnerships and appeal to the private sector to come forward to make investments expose the financial limitations of the railways. But how is Banerjee going to woo them is still not clear.

In summary, Banerjee appears to have failed to walk a tight rope. And the problem of falling revenues and the challenge of modernisation of the Railways, which according to her own words is the “lifeline of the country’s economy”, will continue to haunt Banerjee and her successors. It’s high time the ministry came out with the strategic plan to make over the railways.

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