By Ruma Dubey
The Railway Budget was done away with from this year. It was a part of the Union Budget. Till last year, a day used to be dedicated for the Railway Minister to announce his plans and post that, there used to so much analysis and stock reactions. There used to be this wait for the hike in passenger fares and freight rates.
This time around, the Railway Budget announcements took exactly three and half minutes in all; it was all announced in a jiffy, over and done with. It made one wonder whether if this was the right way then what were we doing for so many years? And if what were we doing for so many years was the correct method, where does that leave the Railways in the current scheme of things?
One could not help but think that somewhere in all this, the Indian Railways has lost its autonomy. Well, they were given complete freedom but it does not seem to have got them anywhere. The Railway budget used to be all about grandiose plans, new railway lines, new stations, new wagon building facilities and so many things. But at the end of it, nothing ever really materialized; it all remained merely on paper. Now, we will probably not even know the plans, so there is no question of trying to decipher whether it implemented what it planned.
The Finance Minister, in the Union Budget, in one sweeping statement said that he was looking at the three PSUs getting listed - IRCON (Indian Railway Construction Company Limited), Indian Railway Finance Corporation (IRFC) and Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC). Coincidentally (or intentionally) all three were named PSUs were Indian Railway units.
What is being whispered in hollowed gangways of Indian Railways is that no one really gave the FM the go-ahead to make this announcement. Two days before the Budget, for the first time ever, this issue of the three units going public was merely mentioned in a meeting with the Govt officials. The Railway officials were asked if they had any objection to the listing of “some of its PSUs” to improve fund mobilization and improve efficiencies. That’s all. Those from the Railway, attending the meeting thought that this was just a preliminary enquiry and they would soon have a detailed discussion on the units which could be put up, look at the roadmap ahead and frankly, no one higher up in the Railway Board had even discussed this. But all of a sudden, the FM on Wednesday, announced plans to list these three PSUs, putting the Railways on the mat.
The word out on the Street is that the Finance Ministry wanted this to happen and the Railway ministry did not truly understand the urgency of his need, which is why the FM pre-empted the move by first announcing, forcing the Railway Board to take up this matter, make the proposal to Department of Investment and Public Asset Management (DIPAM) and then send a note to the Cabinet for getting the approval.
The listing of the PSUs is a good move and it will most certainly help the Indian Railways do much better. But the way in which things were done is what caused some eyebrows to go up; the same way demonetization was done.
The merging of the Railway Budget into the Union Budget was a good move but the million dollar question is whether this will lead to any improvement in the way Railways functions and earns revenue. It did enjoy an autonomous position, which it seems to have lost or rather surrendered for now, where it will have to depend on the Finance Ministry for any initiative.