Economy Feb 26, 2013
A closer reading of Pawan Kumar Bansal's Railway Budget for 2013-14 yields a less charitable view of his efforts. He has indulged in cheap talk, and avoided vital investments that would ensure the future of the Indian Railways.
He has found no money for important projects, but there's enough moolah available for waste. Example: recruiting 1,52,000 new employees for his overstaffed organisation in the run-up to election year.
After stressing on investing more in safety and improved passenger amenities and the need to become "financially sustainable so that resources generated can be ploughed back for efficient upkeep, operation and maintenance of the system", Bansal has actually decided that all this is for the future, not this year.
Who knows, he may not be called to account after next year.
Out of the 12th Plan (2012-17) investment target of Rs 5.19 lakh crore, all that the railways are expected to generate internally is Rs 1.05 lakh crore - about a fifth of the resources. The rest is to come from the finance ministry, borrowings, and public-private partnerships. But in the first year of the plan, the railways managed to generate internal resources of only Rs 10,000 crore - leaving Rs 95,000 crore for the remaining four years of the plan period.
But Bansal was happy to fill this huge gap between resources needed and resources generated with mere words: "The onerous task of raising the balance amount of Rs 95,000 crore in the next four years calls for a paradigm shift in our approach to tariff and non-tariff segments of earnings."
The paradigm shift has been nowhere in evidence. It is for later. The how of his statement has been left unanswered and the first year of the plan is already over.
The second year is also being given the go-by without any achievement.
Bansal said: "The Annual Plan (for) 2013-14 has to be integrated with the broad objectives and targets set for the 12th plan. Yet, we must be realistic in setting targets in the Annual Plan 2013-14, even if it means that the railways would be faced with a stiffer challenge of enhancing investment during the remaining three years of the 12th Plan. A plan investment of Rs 63,363 crore is proposed for 2013-14."
In the first year (2012-13), the plan investment was actually adjusted down from Rs 60,100 crore to Rs 52,265 crore, and for 2013-14, the second year, it is at Rs 63,363 crore. In the first two years of the 12th Plan, thus, only Rs 1.15 lakh crore is being invested. For the remaining three years, the railways will have to find Rs 4.03 lakh crore - a near three-and-a-half times jump.
This is pie-in-the-sky. It just can't happen. Bansal, of course, may not have to eat his words, for he might well not be railway minister after the next general elections. But clearly he has not bridged the gap between his intent for the railways and his budgetary actions.
In fact, a look in the rearview mirror indicates only failures in terms of finding the resources for investment. Of the 700-and-odd km of new lines planned in 2012-13, only 470 km has been achieved, and for next year the target is flattish - at just 500 km.
When it comes to gauge conversions, the 2012-13 target of 800 km was down to 575 km in terms of achievement; next year will be even lower at 475 km. The target for line doubling is flat - up from 700 km this year to 750 km next year.
This saga of shortfall and underachievement is likely to continue in the context of the tight position of the railways.
But, oddly, in the one area where the railways are not under-resourced, it is doing the exact opposite: wasting more money.
The Indian Railways has 14 lakh employees, and the prime need is for a reduction in staff in order to improve efficiencies. But Bansal seems to think otherwise.
He said without any sense of irony: "Madam, our 14 lakh employees constitute our most valuable asset. Some of the measures I propose to take for their welfare are: (i) concerted efforts to fill up approximately 1.52 lakh vacancies this year. It is a measure of popularity of railways as an employer that a staggering 2.2 crore applications were received."
The other welfare benefits he indicated were about building more quarters for staff and providing hostel facilities for single women employees.
For a minister who wants to put the railways on a "financially sustainable" footing, adding another 1.52 lakh staff to an already bloated organisation is highly irresponsible.
Mr Bansal's talk has been better than his delivery.
More From R Jagannathan.