Prabhu’s adroit blend of economy and equity
In a developing country like India, Railway Ministers have to do the tight rope walk – between the Railways’ social service obligations and its economic demands. Has Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu succeeded in balancing the two?
Given the need to run the railways as an economic enterprise, Prabhu has firstly and rightly focused on the need to augment capacity. He has planned spending Rs 1.21 lakh crore in 2016-17, 21 percent higher than his previous budget’s estimate.
In real or physical terms this approximately corresponds to 83 new projects covering about 7834 kms of new lines, doubling of lines, gauge conversion, and Metropolitian Transport Project(MTP). For instance, Prabhu boldly plans a rate of 7 km per day of broad gauge lines; up from an average of about 4.3 kms per day in the last 6 years.
Likewise, he proposes to electrify 2000 kms in 2016-17; a 25 percent jump over the corresponding 2015-16 figure. In addition, the three new Dedicated Freight Corridors(DFC) connecting Delhi to Chennai, Kharagpur to Mumbai and Kharagpur to Vijaywada and the proposed connectivity projects for the ports of Nargol and Hazira would also have huge economic spinoffs for the nation.
Two, he has promised to bring out a policy in the next 3 months to encourage development of cold storage facilities on vacant lands near freight terminals with preference to local farmers and fishermen and also allow floriculture and horticulture along rail tracks. Clearly, the proposed policy would have a positive impact on India’s agrarian economy.
Three, with a view to foster industrial growth in the country, Prabhu proposes to start a time-tabled freight container, parcel and special commodity trains on a pilot basis, open the container sector to most types of traffic, develop rail side logistic parks and warehouses, develop 10 goods sheds in 2016-17 and inaugurate the country’s first rail auto hub in Chennai so as to boost the auto industry.
Four, he has also used the Prime Minister’s pet projects of Make in India and Start-Ups to step up economic growth. For the Make in India initiative, apart from the agreement of setting up 2 loco factories in India with an order book of Rs 40,000 crores, Prabhu plans to increase current procurement by 30 percent in this regard.
He has also targeted revenues of about Rs 4000 crores by 2020 from the manufacturing activity of production units and workshops. Likewise, to encourage start-ups, Prabhu has set aside a sum of Rs 50 crores for innovation grants and proposes to set up innovation labs in workshops and production units.
While he has attempted to use railways as a vehicle for economic transformation, Prabhu has also kept the railways’ equity considerations in mind while drafting his budget.
The introduction of the Antyodya Express, a long distance, fully unreserved, superfast train on dense routes and the addition of two to four Deen Dayalu coaches in some long distance trains for unreserved travel with facility for potable drinking water and mobile charging points would surely be a relief for the relatively “worse of” sections of our society.
Apart from the two aforementioned big bang initiatives, Prabhu has also catered to the downtrodden in several of his other announcements. For instance, he intends to provide new uniforms and soft skills to rail porters so as to convert the hitherto “coolies” into “sahayaks”; aims at ensuring all stations under redevelopment to be Divyang friendly and have at least one Divyang friendly toilet at each platform in A1 class stations in 2016-17, aims at provision of baby foods, hot milk, hot water on trains and railway stations for children; proposes to encourage women self-help groups to supply food on trains and encourage sourcing of products from SC/ST entrepreneurs.
(The writer has taught at the National Law University, Bhopal and is currently, Member of the Good Governance Vibhag of the BJP. Views expressed are personal.)