Millennium Post

Ambitious, at par; now walk the talk

In short, Rail Budget 2014-15 is one more pat on the back of the upper and middle classes. It is aspirational, has Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature style written all over it, and is a robust preface to what we can expect in the main Budget 2014-15 which will be read out in Parliament by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on 10 July. Union Railways Minister Sadanand Gowda has spelt out a fiscal plan to revive the railways in a way that is really a mixed bag, merging measures that are solely aimed at making the aam aadmi happy with those that would set the ball rolling for a gradual privatisation of the national asset. Coming in the wake of June’s passenger fare and freight charge hikes, Rail Budget 2014 is about oiling the rusty engines of railways with a few lubricants: a) intent to implement pending projects, b) incentivise and liven up rail travel by enriching the experience, as well as, c) outline a future that is more glamorous and in-keeping with what the Modi regime stands for: growth. Keeping out only the sensitive sphere of operations, the inaugural rail budget of the BJP government, spells out a paradigm shift in its stance vis-à-vis foreign direct investment (FDI). In addition to setting the stage for allowing FDI in various areas of the railways, particularly in its futuristic push towards consolidating and materialising the hype into reality (such as building the first bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad – a project that would require at least Rs 60,000 crore and a wholly new set of state-of-the-art tracks), Budget 2014 is about disinvestment and plodding privatisation of the biggest railways network in the world. The rationale: ambitious plan to build the diamond quadrilateral, or the network of high-speed rails with train velocities up to 160-200 kmph, which cannot be done without private participation.

        The maiden rail budget of the BJP regime, therefore, can be confidently dubbed ‘anti-populist’ but not anti-middle-class. That is because it aims to rev up many a flagging area of operation: such as hygiene, online booking of tickets, reservation through mobile phones and digital means, security, especially for women and children with more female RPF constables onboard, emphasis on cleanliness and amenities such as safe drinking water, vending machines for food and tickets, better parking facilities, making the railway stations and platforms disabled- and elderly-friendly, putting in place escalators, elevators, automatic closing door and suburban coaches. However, the push towards privatisation would heavily alienate the poorest of the poor, especially the urban migrants, who rely on relatively cheap travel by rail. We advise the government to keep that in mind during the coming days and months.     
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