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Rail to nowhere

Notwithstanding the grand show put up by Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday,perhaps it’s time for Indian Railways...

Written by The Indian Express |
February 25, 2010 2:18:02 am

Notwithstanding the grand show put up by Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday,perhaps it’s time for Indian Railways to be deprived of its big day in Parliament. If the ability to deliver a separate budget continually causes in successive railway ministers delusions of grandeur,the belief that they run a little kingdom and must do in miniature all the things that the government believes it is responsible for,then the railway budget definitely does more harm than good. The 2010 budget for IR was,in some ways,a particularly egregious example of the railway-ministry-as-benevolent-socialist-despotism school of thought. Every single message that was sent out said the same thing: this exercise isn’t about the railways,it is about patronage,and that everyone will get their little handout if they stop interrupting Mamatadi.

It isn’t just the big points,though they are bad enough. That Banerjee chose to leave the passenger fare-freight fare equation largely untouched even given the near unanimity among experts that the cross-subsidisation of passenger travel by freight fees should end is significant. But what worries is the entire stance of the speech,the idea that IR should not be run as an organisation that moves people and things efficiently from one place to another,but as a quasi-state,with its own social sector schemes and stimulus packages. Six new bottling plants for drinking water! Is it the minister’s opinion that this is a more efficient and reliable method for sourcing water than relying on a transparently awarded contract? Then there are the 10 eco-parks that have been promised. Why on earth is a cash-strapped railways building eco-parks? Or,for that matter,setting up five sports academies?

Is there not another ministry for this,and several quasi-governmental bodies? And what reasonable set of ideas about governance requires a railway to set up a Tagore museum and academy? Just because IR has land,is it competent to run everything imaginable on it?

This is not just a minister playing to her home state,beginning the countdown to an election campaign. This is about how the philosophy of governance that has been made explicit in this budget is one that will hold back the development of what was once and could be again the backbone of India’s infrastructure. As the minister herself said,she needed to rush through her two-hour speech “like the Rajdhani” because there were “so many schemes”. A few less schemes,and we’d all be happier.

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