Saturday, March 3, 2012

Railway Budget 2012: Dinesh Trivedi slams PM for not providing adequate funds to railways

Dinesh Trivedi, Railway Minister
NEW DELHI: Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi has criticised the prime minister for not providing adequate funds to the railways, an unprecedented attack by a minister on the head of the cabinet and one that could mark a new low in relations between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress, Trivedi's party.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the founder of Trinamool Congress, has been at odds with the Congress-led UPA on a host of issues, including a proposal to set up a National Counter-Terrorism Centre.

In an exclusive interview to ET, just days before the rail budget, Trivedi said his repeated appeals to the finance ministry and Planning Commission to provide funds for his Rs 1-lakh crore modernisation plan for the railways have evoked "just words, no tangible action".

Treat Railways as Utilities

Trivedi had earlier said he would back the politically unpopular decision of a long overdue hike in fares while his party chief had maintained her opposition to any increase in burden on passengers. The fare hike would, however, amount to just a "drop in the ocean" as it would generate no more than Rs 5,000 crore, the minister said, which is why the government would have to provide the bulk of funds for modernisation.

"The railways are in dire need of Rs 1 lakh crore over the next five years to transport people and goods safely. I have taken this up repeatedly with the finance ministry and the Planning Commission, but all I have heard is words," Trivedi said. The minister said it is up to the government to turn the railways into a catalyst for GDP growth.

"At a time a bailout package is discussed for Air India and help is extended to private airlines like Kingfisher, why can't the government step in to fund the railways that can add to the GDP?" Trivedi asked. "The government needs to understand that spending on the railways is not purely expenditure but an investment in infrastructure that will pay rich dividends."

Nowhere in the world are the railways expected to make profits, the minister said, adding that the railways should be treated as utilities, just like power, water and surface transport. Trivedi's comments come just ahead of the submission of the Sam Pitroda panel's report on modernisation of the railways on Monday.

Earlier this month, the Anil Kakodkar committee report had put a big question mark on the ability of the railways to ensure the safety of over 18 million passengers travelling by train every single day.

The report had recommended that a railway modernisation plan - covering updating of signalling systems, anti-collision devices, safer coaches, strengthening and laying of new tracks - be set in motion right away.

The panel had projected a requirement of Rs 1 lakh crore over the next five years, suggesting that one-third of this could be met by levying surcharges over and above the ticket fare. The minister said he was duty-bound to go by the recommendations of both the reports.

"The doctors have given their prescription for the railways. If I don't follow the doctor's prescription, I will not be doing justice to the patient," he said. Salaries and overheads account for 86 paise of every rupee that the railways earn, the minister said.

"How do we plough back the remaining 14 paise for our daily fuel and equipment for safety while also ensuring cleanliness?" he asked, stressing that the government has to generate resources for the railways by dipping into its kitty of taxes, excise and other levies.

The minister cautioned that a further delay in generating resources for the railways could result in a situation where the government would have to face demands for a bailout package.

"A stitch in time saves nine. The government has to decide if it wants to treat the railways as an orphan and leave it to run on the whims and fancies of the minister in charge," he said, adding that there is need to evolve a national railway policy that could insulate the railways from political pressures.


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