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On a different track

Imagining Mamata Banerjee’s Railway Budget,to be presented in Parliament this week...

Written by Bibek Debroy |
July 1, 2009 5:43:09 am

Madam Speaker,I rise to place before the House the Railway Budget for 2009-10. “The real power in politics — is it manpower? Alas! In a real sense it is money power.” Members may not know this quote is from a poem titled “Politics” I penned while I was putting finishing touches to this speech. Madam Speaker,this is a budget and it is about money. But I will come to that later. This is a historic occasion. Never before in history has the Railway Budget been presented by a lady before a lady speaker. The Yadavs in this House need reminding I was India’s first lady Railway minister in 2000. Even as I speak,my mind is on my next poem and it will say,“Three Ms bring power and make the others cower.” I do not refer to Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing. That is “No-No”. I mean “Ma-maati-maanush”,with Meira-Mamata-Mukherjee as a sub-strand. That is how we will transform our “Jaago Bangla” message to “Jaago Bharat”. In celebration of this trinity,I am sending a shawl to Ram Vilas Paswan. As in 1997,I would have thrown it at him in this august House. But unfortunately,he lost the elections.

In my message to members of the Railway family on May 30,2009,I said,“Railways are committed to protect and nurture the commercial interest,but it has to be done with a human face… While performing our duties in the length and breadth of the country,we should always be alert to maintain the highest level of safety and security of Indian Railways.” Eighty three per cent of train accidents occur because of human error. We are upgrading safety and signalling equipment and manual signals between stations will be replaced by automated signalling. Failure-detection circuits and anti-collision devices will be extended to the entire system. I am constrained because I have still not found a replacement for Sudhir Kumar. He is on sabbatical,writing books. But I have been told the volume “Bankruptcy to Billions” is a gigantic fraud. Once I have an OSD (Ratan is finding it difficult enough to switch from Fiat to Zen,he can’t drive trains),I will expose how my predecessor has driven billions to bankruptcy. Therefore,Shri S.S. Khurana,Chairman,Railway Board,will provide details of what Railways will do to improve safety and security.

As far as I am concerned,the greatest threat to India’s security (this includes the Indian Railways) is the CPM. That’s the reason I wanted the home ministry. “The red dragon cannot be slain with a railway wagon.” Those will be the first lines of the first poem I write in 2011. So,beyond what Khurana says,safety and security is Shri Chidambaram’s responsibility. But I will say this. Since 83 per cent of train accidents are caused by human error,we need more institutes for HR-training and I am appalled that barring Jamalpur,no existing centralised railway training institute is located eastwards beyond Lucknow. It is a paradox that in the recent past,all Railway ministers have been from eastern India and the east continues to be the most deprived region. I therefore propose to set up the Indian Railway Institute for Safety and Security in West Medinipur,with Lalgarh as the catchment area. The uniform for male trainees will be dhoti-kurta,while that for female trainees will be dhonekhali saris. It is also important that 1.4 million members of the Railway family be rewarded for their efforts. Recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission will be implemented with retrospective effect from January 1,2006.

I have used as a benchmark share prices for Tata Motors and I think average salary increase should be 60 per cent. This will raise financial issues,but that’s not really my expertise. That’s the reason I am ably supported by two ministers of state. Anything outside West Bengal represents external affairs to me. Indeed,I am constrained to spend four days every week in West Bengal. Shri E. Ahamed has considerable expertise in external affairs and he will thus deal with all Railway affairs in Delhi. Similarly,Shri K.H. Muniyappa has expertise in shipping,road transport and highways and he will deal with all multi-modal affairs. My predecessor has financially hoodwinked the country and,as promised,I will produce a White Paper on this. However,there is one valuable lesson I have imbibed from him. Do what you broadly want and leave the rest to experts. And human face means we cannot increase passenger fares,not in this period of downturn. If I do that,someone will go and squat in the well of the House. With so many new faces in the Lok Sabha,I need to remind those who weren’t here in 1996 that this is a right reserved for me. However,the number of coaches on passenger trains will be increased from 24 to 32 (and on minor trains from 18 to 24). This will increase costs by 28 per cent,but will increase revenues by 78 per cent.

Kolkata Metro,though autonomous,is still not an independent zone. It will be made one. By 2011,there will be a clear plan for connecting Sikkim,Arunachal and Meghalaya by rail and rail links with Bangladesh and Nepal will also be energised. I introduced 19 new trains in 2000-01. With India having progressed since then,29 new trains are being introduced in 2009-10. The list is appended in the budget papers. But I want to flag off Kolkata-Medinipur and Kolkata-Puruliya “Vidrohi” Expresses and tourist-centred Nandigram (it will run up to Mograjpur) Express,to be run by IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation),which I had originally conceived. On freight,correcting my predecessor’s biases,the eastern freight corridor will now extend to Sealdah. The turnaround time for freight wagons will be reduced to four days and every feeder line will be electrified. Each train will now carry 76 wagons. Load limits on freight wagons are being increased by an additional 10 per cent. Freight is being increased by 10 per cent for bulk goods like coal,cement,food-grains and iron ore,but not non-bulk items,where we compete with trucks.

With the government’s stimulus packages,companies can pay. What this does to our finances depends on Shri Pranab Mukherjee. He may not have favoured the tie-up,but we are now tied together. If he ensures recovery,we are projecting a surplus of Rs 30,000 crore and our operating ratio will approach 80 per cent. But I need to remind Parliament that under the separation convention of 1924,we don’t have to meet capital expenditure or pay dividends. Next year,I will recommend the Railway Budget be clubbed with the Union Budget. 2011 is D-year.

Madam,I commend the Railway Budget to the House.

The writer is a Delhi-based economistexpress@expressindia.com

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