How do you evaluate a speech that says nothing? Or at best, nothing new.
The thrust of the 2015 railway budget was to make the Indian Railways (IR) a prime mover of the economy. The emphasis was on removing operational bottlenecks and consolidating infrastructure development to decongest saturated routes and, thus, reduce the logistics component of product costs, which, in India, are among the highest in the world. This year’s budget was full of generalisations and nothing specific was spelled out in this thrust area.
The IR’s finances are in disarray. With core sector growth at just 1.9 per cent, there is no way the IR can achieve the targeted incremental freight loading of almost 8 per cent. This calls for serious financial prudence but the railway ministry doesn’t seem to have realised this. If the 2015 budget was the apogee of farsightedness, 2016 is an apology for having developed cataract.
Dismal core sector growth has, in a way, saved the IR from facing the challenge that faster growth would have thrown up. But this challenge will come up tomorrow. It is necessary to prepare for it.
At the very end of the budget speech, the railway minister spoke of certain “missions” he is contemplating to improve freight operations. The vague nature of these statements does not inspire confidence in the ministry on the subject of financial management. These need to be elaborated on, now.
The budget was good for what it did not do — it did not raise freight rates. Our freight rates, among the highest in the world, make our products uncompetitive. Over the years, these high freight rates have diverted railway traffic to roads. In fact, discounting for the fuel component in freight charges, the rates should have been reduced this year. Passenger fares do not add much to the kitty but keeping them stagnant is also not good in the long run. A marginal increase was, perhaps, called for.
The minister has rightly pointed out the need to augment transportation capacity. Finances can be improved only by increasing the volume of traffic and tilting the scales in the IR’s favour. We also need to improve average speeds of trains. Most tracks and rolling stock are already fit for speeds above 100 kmph for passenger services and above 75 kmph for goods services. However, average speeds of passenger services are around 40-50 kmph and those of freight 20-25 kmph. This is because we don’t have the capacity to run them at optimum speed. Increasing capacity by doubling/ quadrupling lines would in itself improve speeds. This has to be the thrust area.
This will need resources. But, the IR seems to be going on a big-ticket shopping spree that has nothing to do with capacity augmentation. Warren Buffett says if you buy things you don’t need, you will have to sell things that you do need. That seems to be the case with the IR, going by the slew of disjointed measures spelled out in the budget. And all this expenditure when the railways is borrowing money at exorbitant interest rates. One day, these debts will have to be paid back. It is a very costly exhibition that the minister is trying to put up. Such extravagance may make for good photo-ops, sound bites and breaking news.
But do we need all this right now? When the IR is bankrupt? The issue is not technology. It is priority and timing. Technology for technology’s sake is not what an organisation dealing with logistics should opt for. Where will we run coaches at 200 kmph when even the existing sectional speed is not being achieved? Till we don’t have the capacity to run, buying such technology is like buying a Ferrari for Chandni Chowk.
And this when it is impossible to get into an unreserved compartment. People still travel on rooftops and footboards and get killed every day.
The talk of “semi-high-speed corridors” makes as much sense as someone being “semi-pregnant”. In any case, they are being financed by a foreign source and would be executed by a foreign company. Where does the IR come into the picture?
And where are the locomotives? We don’t have engines to run even our existing fleet of freight and passenger vehicles.
With increased capacity, we will need many more locomotives. The budget does not indicate a comprehensive strategy for these issues.
The budget makes apparent the fractured nature of the railway organisation. Different expenditure-driven departments simply play their own tunes. The force of technology vendors seems to have rendered the core activity — transportation — into a sideshow. The minister has spoken about restructuring, but this has been in the works for long. Let us wait and see if the IR can become a professional transportation organisation. Or will it remain an inauguration organisation?
Most of the budget speech was a repetition of the long list of measures taken to improve passenger amenities. Good work has been done on these issues in the last one year. But that was last year’s speech. Why repeat them? Further, why should all this be part of the budget at all? How is catering a budget item? How can you talk about providing coal to power houses in the same vein as providing pizza to passengers? In fact, it is high time the rationale of having a separate rail budget was examined.
There was too much talk about what is being said on social media. Craving publicity too much is an indication of political insecurity. But cosmetics and publicity will not take the country or the organisation far. Putting the IR back on track calls for hard work. Tweeting does not help much.
The hapless minister looked overwrought throughout the speech, as if in a hurry to get out of the predicament his position seems to have placed him in. There was none of his usual humour; clearly a man at his wits’ end. From the business-like no-nonsense man of last year to the tragic figure of this year, Suresh Prabhu has certainly covered quite a distance, downhill.