|Rail Minister Mamta Banerjee|
New Delhi. For the last two years, Mamata Banerjee's rail budgets have followed a predictable pattern — no hikes in passenger fares or freight rates and wagonloads of goodies for the maanush from her maati, West Bengal. On Friday, with what she will hope is her last rail budget for a while, she added another arrow to her quiver. The goodies this time were almost as much for Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam, all poll-bound states, as for her home state.
That's not to suggest that her Bangabandhu avatar was given a rest. Singur and Nandigram, sites of obvious political significance, have been given a metro coach factory and a railway industrial park, respectively.
Kolkata has been promised a suburban rail network along the lines of the one in Mumbai with a Kolkata Rail Vikas Corporation (KRVC) to be set up for the purpose. Other metros will also, Mamata promised, have similar networks in the future. The KRVC is in addition to a major thrust for Kolkata Metro.
But unlike in the past, when she had manifested a single-mindedness that the legendary Arjun would have been proud of, she was willing to accommodate the interests of her allies in the UPA. Whether that comes from a confidence that Bengal is as good as sewn up or reflects a bowing to the coalition dharma that the Prime Minister recently invoked is anybody's guess.
Mamata's tenure has seen the railways finances face a severe crunch, not entirely a result of her populism, and the budget for 2011-12 suggests things aren't going to get much better. The operating ratio for the next year is projected at 91.1%, which means less than one in every ten rupees the railways earn will be available for future investments — a steep decline from just three years ago, when it could put aside about a quarter of its earnings for investments.
Despite the precarious finances, Mamata announced an Annual Plan of over Rs 57,000 crore, the largest ever. The catch is that barely a fourth of this is to be funded from the railway's own funds, the rest coming from budgetary support and borrowings.
As always, she announced scores of new trains and extension of existing ones or increases in their frequency.
Among the new trains were nine new Duranto expresses, three new Shatabdis, four Vivek Express trains to commemorate Swami Vivekananda, four Kavi Guru trains to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore and 10 Rajya Rani expresses to connect state capitals to important cities in the same states.
She also promised that AC double-decker trains would start functioning this year on the Jaipur-Delhi and Mumbai-Ahmedabad routes and that a new super AC class would be introduced. No details on this class were available except to say that it would provide improved comfort and features and greater exclusivity, clearly not targeted at the aam admi.
Passengers, she promised, would also now be able to book retiring rooms in advance and use a Go-India smart card for single-window purchase of long distance, suburban or metro tickets through booking counters, vending machines and the internet.
Senior citizen concessions on fares will now be available to those over 58 years of age instead of 60 in the case of women, whereas for men the concession will rise from 30% to 40%.
The rail budget has identified 236 more stations to be upgraded to the Adarsh station category, which implies that they will have safe drinking water, pay-and-use toilets, high-level platforms and better accessibility for the disabled.
On the safety front, Mamata boasted that the accident rate had been nearly halved in the last six years and claimed that unmanned level crossings, which are responsible for many deaths, will be eliminated in the coming year. Anti-collisions devices, she said, would be in operation in 8 of the 17 railway zones, while they are currently in use in just one.
Making a strong pitch for socially desirable projects — those that may not immediately be economically viable but are needed to connect backward areas — the rail minister said all the 114 such projects which were being surveyed would be implemented during the 12th Plan period under a to-be-established Pradhan Mantri Rail Vikas Yojna, which will have a non-lapsable fund.
Railway staff got a parting gift from the mantri. Anyone over 50 who is unable to work due to ill health can get a son or daughter a job in the railways. That's not all. As part of a major recruitment drive, the railways, already the world's largest single employer with 14 lakh people on its rolls, will fill up 1.75 lakh vacancies and in the process also give jobs to 16,000 ex-servicemen.
The rail mantri said 700-odd km of new lines are likely to be completed in the current year, a quantum jump over the average of 180 km a year since Independence. Another 1,000 km would be added in the coming year.
Many of these promises might be difficult to keep but Mamata would be hoping that the job of explaining why the targets weren't met will be someone else's and she will be safely ensconced in Writers Building, Kolkata, come February next year.