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Budget tabled with eye on polls

Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal was seen under the pressure of impending Legislative Assemblies and Lok Sabha elections, while presenting his maiden Rail Budget, but unfortunately he failed to enthuse the people of India with its provisions. Lok Sabha election are due in 2014 and elections will be held in many states of the country in the coming months. This is perhaps the last Rail Budget of United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II government, which may go for only a vote on account next year, if Lok Sabha election is held on its due date. This is the reason, why the minister was expected to present a populist budget.

But before announcing the budget Bansal gave hints that he may have been forced to raise the railway fares to meet the cost of enhanced high speed diesel prices and raised electricity charge. It has been a political strategy to create panic among people before announcing the budget and do the contrary, so that public sentiments turn towards the government. Bansal has announced that there will be no increase in the railway fares, but what he meant by that was related to base fares. Base fare and actual fare are not always the same. On base fare, several other charges are levied and the minister has raised those charges, which will in effect raise the railway fares.

That is why Bansal was not completely wrong, when he was hinting at the fare rise, while preparing the budget. Similarly, he was not completely true, when he said that rail fares have not been raised. In fact, Lalu Prasad Yadav was the first to use this kind of fare increase.

In one budget after another Lalu, during 2004-2009, went on to claim that he was not raising rail fares but he was actually doing the just opposite. He was converting normal express trains as super fast trains and raising the super fast surcharge on customers. He was raising the seats under Tatkal schemes and at the same time, increasing the Tatkal charges. He had even raised the sleeper reservation charges keeping the base fare intact.

It seems that Bansal has copied Lalu’s scheme of raising the revenue on account of fares, while keeping the passenger fare charge unchanged. Lalu had one more advantage, which Bansal does not. During his time, the number of coaches in all trains were raised sufficiently that resulted into more passengers journeying from the same train. This provided extra revenues to the railways and also helped more passengers to travel. In most of the countries, during most of the months of the year, demand for travel is always much more than the seat availability. So, it was a master stroke to raise the revenue of the railway by just increasing the coaches of the train, while keeping the fares unchanged.

Now trains have reached their saturation point so as far the number of coaches are concerned, Bansal does not have an opportunity to follow the same stratergy. Neverthless, he has imitated Lalu in keeping the base price of the fare unchanged and increasing the other charges.

In his speech, he has not specifically stated the quantum of increase, so it is yet to be seen how costlier the rail fare is going to be. Making an announcement for new railway projects, new railway lines and new trains is another way for making the budget popular. Since there is a huge demand for rail travel across the country, therefore the new trains are always welcomed by the people of the country, as introduced in some regions. The minister has himself said that during last 12 years, the number of trains running the track has increased by more than 50 per cent. He too has made contribution in it by announcing 94 trains belonging to four categories. He has taken into account those regions of India, where  the stake of Congress is high. He has also taken care of the interests of other UPA allies. In this process, East India has unfortunately been neglected. This year, we have seen a westward shift in project announcement. Rajasthan, Punjab, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Rai Bareli, Madhya Pradesh and many places of South India figured repeatedly in the budget speech but Bihar and Bengal did not find much mention. This might be due to the political and electoral factors, because in these two states, Congress does not have much at stake. The Budget has been very carefully designed and importance has been given to only those states where their stakes are too high.

The Railway Minister has also made an announcement of giving jobs to around 1,36,000 youth across the country. Tests for recruitments have been going on since the last 4-5 years and the youth are still awaiting the results. Since election are taking place this year, results might be declared and Congress will definitely take credit for giving jobs on a huge scale in the railway.

This is a good news for those, who are waiting for the results and for those who are in search of jobs. In preparing the budget and his speech, Bansal did not pay much attention on the black marketing of railway tickets. There is a strong ring of such racketeers and the action taken by the railways against them have not proved very successful.

Such network has come into existence only after the privatisation of train ticketing and giving licence to private agents for booking the tickets. One thing Railway Minister could have done was the announcement to do away with such agents.This could have attracted the public for the present rail budget. Budget has only been introduced, it has to be debated and passed. We can expect Bansal to deliver, where he has failed. (IPA)
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