DELHI: 11 July 2014

The Social Democratic Party of India, (SDPI) has called the 2014 Railway Budget as disappointing. The Railway Minister’s statements of intent are not backed up by a roadmap or timeline to achieve them, the party said.

SDPI National President A Sayeed in a statement said that the Railway Minister Sadananda Gowda’s rail budget is a missed opportunity. The country awaited a path-breaking rail budget, but it did not meet expectations.

Sayeed said that some of the fine pronouncements of this rail budget are echoes of the voices of past governments. Many of the proposals in the budget speech are old hat, and the real test will be execution. For instance, the idea of a Diamond Quadrilateral of high-speed tracks is not altogether new. It clones Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Golden Quadrilateral of highways. No target has been set for any activity. The proposals are open-ended, without monitorable milestones. Even for introducing semi-high-speed trains (160-200 kmph), no sector-wise target has been specified.

He questioned as to what do faster trains mean to the Indian imagination? Given the stupendously bad track record of the Indian Railways, it means a faster death. The most urgent need of the Indian Railways is safety automation, not Wi-Fi or offices on wheels, which were in the news even before the rail budget. India does almost all of its communicating on mobile internet, even on trains.
Moreover, Sayeed said, there is a lot of hype about bullet trains, which is like talking about building a 100-storey building without a foundation. The need of the hour is to strengthen infrastructure, namely tracks, bridges, signalling and telecommunications, rolling stock, stations and freight terminals. Without strengthening basic infrastructure, we will not be able to address safety issues, let alone efficiency.

The statement stated that the focus of this budget lies far away from the hinterland, and it seeks to impress with food courts in big stations, mineral water on tap and IVR complaints for the dissatisfied. India does not live in corporate offices alone. We must also serve those who have been waiting patiently for a better future in the villages, small towns and urban slums. We cannot ignore more than half the citizens of the land who live less privileged lives.

Sayeed said that teetering and faltering, Railways continues to wallow in the pernicious dynamics of status quo, whose potential remains to be unlocked by bold political leadership and a dollop of capital. If that potential was unleashed, Railways could puff hard and add some 2 per cent to India’s flagging economic growth. Traffic for rail has been smothered; capacity crunch has been endemic. Railways now move only 10 per cent of the country’s passenger traffic and less than one-third of its freight. As the National Transport Development Policy Committee has just revealed, the non-optimal intermodal distribution owing to Railway’s declining share in the transport market causes a loss of 4.5 percent of GDP to the national economy. Most expert bodies have argued for Railway to achieve an optimal 50 per cent share in country’s freight market by end of 15th Five-Year Plan, the statement said.

India cannot eliminate poverty or contain inflation without an efficient transportation system, and given the constraint of land and the limitation of road transport, which is also polluting, the only answer is an efficient railway system that can move not only consumer and industrial goods, but also essentials like food-grains to eliminate hunger and malnutrition in remote areas, the statement further said.

He pointed out that Railway minister has relied heavily on PPP for Indian Railways’ ambitious development schemes. Private capital has been hard to come by. It is incumbent that Indian Railways identify and addresses all organisational and institutional deficiencies inhibiting PPP. To begin with, if Rs.60,000 crore is required for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train (500 km at Rs.120 crore per km), only Rs.100 crore has been provided to conduct techno-economic studies. Resources for construction are to be arranged through FDI or PPP, with no concrete plan for generating the funds. The idea of creating passenger amenities in stations — foot overbridges, escalators, elevators, etc, through the PPP route doesn’t appear to be practical as no financial model has been presented.

“We often compare ourselves with China in terms of growth and economic progress, but just about 20 years ago, China was 15 years behind the Indian Railways, and now it has gone so far ahead that Indian Railways will ever be able to reach anywhere near it. China’s outlay is approximately $116 billion, while ours is approximately $10-12 billion. China hauls three times as much freight as the Indian Railways”, the statement observed.

Sayeed sad: “What needs to drastically change is the mindset of our political parties. First, the Indian Railways needs to be depoliticised; and second, there is a need for a national policy on the Indian Railways so that, even with changes in government, minister, the chairman of the railway board or its members, policy does not change. At present, railway policy is minister-centric, there is no national policy”.