Beyond the few new measures and fiscal tweaking here and there,the message that came out loud and clear in this Rail Budget was the one that Pawan Bansal did not actually spell out in words in his two-hour-long speech.
More of an admission really,the message was that financial mismanagement by those running the Railways over the past several years had done the national transporter and,indirectly,the travelling public,a great disservice.
His predecessors,from own party and regional outfits,have shown that the Rail Budget can be reduced to a bagful of promises with no clue on how to keep them. Goodies worth thousands of crores of rupees have been casually thrown around. In the eighties,Congress strongman from Bengal A B A Ghani Khan Choudhury had showered so many benefits on his state and his home ground Malda as railway minister that it turned him into something of a legend and created a mini-political dynasty in the region.
Two of Bansals more recent predecessors too extended such largesse on way to becoming regional satraps and chief ministers of their respective states.
The Railways,meanwhile,suffered. Recently,it admitted that it has pending works worth Rs 4.25 lakh crore and no roadmap on how to complete them. In the past 13 years,the hike in the number of passenger trains,by around 3,500,taking the figure to 12,335 has also hiked its losses to around Rs 25,000 crore.
Despite it being an election year,Bansals budget,that way,is a welcome exception. The linking of fuel price rise to fare and freight is the first attempt to arrest cross-subsidies,which have been bleeding the Railways. Judicious allocation of funds on few select existing projects and resisting the temptation to announce big-ticket works will give the transport behemoth a welcome break. Even in the announcement of new trains,there is a semblance of proportionate distribution across the country. Some of the money earned will also be ploughed back into the system for upgrade owing to a healthier operating ratio.
Officials admitted it was an implementable budget.
Sure,the last three years of the Plan period in terms of targets will be a tall order for the Railways. But if the admission of guilt is the first step towards correction,Bansal may have set the Railways down that track.
Avishek is a special correspondent,based in Delhi