Lalu Prasad gets ready for fifth straight rail budget

February 22nd, 2008 - 1:04 pm ICT by admin  

New Delhi, Feb 22 (IANS) Rail Bhavan in the heart of the national capital wears a busy look as Railway Minister Lalu Prasad prepares to present his fifth successive budget Feb 26, having given ample evidence that passengers will again be spared fare hikes. “One thing stands clearly proven in these four years: by just increasing fares, you cannot improve the state of railways,” the minister told IANS, having turned around the fortunes of Indian Railways - the world’s largest railroad network under a single management - in the four previous rail budgets.

“There are many inaccessible remote areas still untouched by the railways after so many years on the plea that these are financially unviable. My government has a social obligation,” Lalu Prasad said, even as officials rushed in and out of his well-appointed second-floor room with flagged files.

“Therefore my effort is to see that even if it is considered uneconomical, we have to see how to make this network expansion viable,” said Prasad, adding he clearly understood the importance of railways in the country - the only area that has a separate budget outside the union budget.

The network runs more than 11,000 trains every day - 7,000 for passengers - on a network spread over 108,706 track km, carrying over 13 million passengers from as many as 6,853 stations.

Lalu Prasad’s confidant and officer on special duty Sudhir Kumar, normally at hand to brief the media about the minister’s engagements, is nowhere to be seen and officials said he would remain incommunicado till the D-Day Feb 26.

“He is not sitting here for some time now. He is currently functioning from the budget room. It is barred for outsiders,” Kumar’s personal assistant said. “He is really busy. He has to implement what the minister wants.”

In the four budgets that Lalu Prasad has presented for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government so far, Indian Railways has seen a complete financial transformation. So much so that it has become a case study at major management schools both within and outside the country, with premier institutions like Wharton and the Harvard Business School even inviting the minister as a guest lecturer.

In the last fiscal, for example, the railways saw its earnings from freight and passengers respectively jump 17 percent and 14 percent. The incremental loading of freight was projected to have jumped by 59 million tonnes.

One of the most popular moves initiated by him was to introduce the AC three-tier sleeper on most trains, and this has seen a 20 percent annual growth rate. So has his Garib Rath scheme that addresses the needs of the average passenger.

“I think one area where there will be added focus is public-private partnership, since he has promised to make every aspect of Indian Railways world class, which requires ideas from the private sector,” said a former Railway Board member.

“His budget speech may sound populist, but you will perhaps see some initiatives emerging in areas like freight corridors, development of railway land, logistics parks, high-speed trains and upgrade of stations,” the former bureaucrat added.

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