Fares cut, profits soar in Lalu’s fifth rail budget

February 26th, 2008 - 6:06 pm ICT by admin  

By Arvind Padmanabhan
New Delhi, Feb 26 (IANS) Across the board reduction in fares, better hygiene, focus on punctuality, new routes, better coaches and mobile ticketing - the millions of train travellers could not have asked for more as Railway Minister Lalu Prasad presented his fifth budget Tuesday, mixing populism with pragmatism. With a projected cash surplus of Rs.247.83 billion ($6.2 billion) for the next fiscal, and a plan outlay of Rs.375 billion ($9.35 billion), the minister also added another chapter to the dramatic turnaround story of the Indian Railways, while keeping the interests of the traveller and industry in sight.

Lalu Prasad said that fares would be cut by five percent in sleeper class, four percent in AC II Class, three percent in AC III Tier and seven percent in AC I Class. Transportation of petrol and diesel would cost five percent less, and he also delivered on the promise of rationalising the freight tariff for industry.

The minister also announced 10 new ‘garib raths’ and 53 other new trains for the next fiscal. He said that for the first time, train tickets would also have the expected time of arrival to ensure punctuality. And in a revolutionary step, he announced that the thousands of rail porters in the country would be absorbed in the railways as Class IV employees.

“Everybody is appreciating that I have done tremendous work,” Lalu Prasad, who was dressed in a cream-coloured sleeveless sweater and his trademark white kurta pyjama, said in English before proceeding with the 115-minute speech in Hindi.

“We have created an organisation where every child will say Chak de Railways!” he said in his last full budget for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, with an eye on elections in several states and the later Lok Sabha ballot.

Business leaders hailed the proposals as a pragmatic budget, which also won accolades from train passengers in most parts of the country. The opposition was unsparing though.

Some of the other measures directed at the average traveller included tickets through mobile phones, issue of wait-listed e-tickets, 6,000 auto-ticketing machines, LED display boards at stations and higher platforms at 135 stations.

The new initiatives, he said, were meant to eliminate queues to buy tickets in two years.

He also announced modular toilets in trains, modernised coaches for premier trains like Rajdhanis and Shatabdis, touch screens and colour TVs at all major stations as well as stainless-steel coaches for all trains by 2010.

He said red-robed porters with licences would be appointed as gangmen to take charge of unmanned level crossings and other sundry duties.

The Indian Railways - the second largest in the world under a single management - run more than 11,000 trains every day, 7,000 of which are for passengers. The network comprises 108,706 km and ferries 14 million passengers daily from 6,853 stations across the length and breadth of the country.

Given the railways’ importance, this is also the only ministry that has a separate annual statement of accounts outside the national budget, which will be presented by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram Friday.

As he read out the budget proposals, Lalu Prasad said the private sector would be permitted to build terminals on land owned by the railways. Consultations would begin with foreign companies to design new wagons.

Of the Rs.2,500 billion proposed in expanding the network over the next five years, as much as Rs.1,000 billion would be through private-public-partnership schemes. Global competitive bidding for world-class stations and other facilities was on the cards, he said.

“The financial turnaround of the railways has been achieved by thinking beyond the beaten path, taking innovative decisions in commercial, operational and pricing policies and through cross-functional cooperation,” the minister said.

“For making this magical turnaround durable, we will prepare a railway vision 2025 document within six months which will present new ideas and initiatives in a novel manner,” he promised.

The minister said that in the past four years, the plan investment in railways had almost tripled to Rs.300 billion from Rs.110 million even as the freight target of 785 million tonnes was surpassed this fiscal with 790 million tonnes.

He said the plan expenditure of Rs.375 billion for 2008-09, which was 21 percent more than in the current fiscal, would see more than 79 percent coming from internal accruals and extra-budgetary resources.

He also said that revenues from passenger fares had jumped by 14 percent while income from freight loading was up close to 10 percent at Rs.347 billion in the first nine months of the current fiscal.

This apart, the minister said rail infrastructure would be upgraded over the next seven years at an investment of Rs.750 billion along with the proposal to set up 20,000 km of high-density network for speedier trains.

As he came to the end of Part One of his speech after some 110 minutes, there were noisy protests by opposition members. But Lalu Prasad persisted in reading the report even though Speaker Somnath Chatterjee asked him to table it.

“If leaders of parties behave this way, I cannot understand,” an anguished Chatterjee said. “Those who don’t want to listen may go out.”

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