Prabhunovation seeks turnaround in railways
ASHOK B SHARMA
Railway Budget for the current year is novel in many ways. Departing from the usual routine of emphasising on laying of new tracks and raising passenger fares and prescribing slabs for freight rates, this year’s budgetary proposals concentrated more on the strategy for improving passenger service, amenities and safety; capacity expansion; decongestion of heavy haul routes and speeding up of trains; modernisation through extensive use of information technology; deployment of solar and renewable energy and waste management.
The Railway Budget is a part of trilogy of documents tabled in Parliament that includes a White Paper revealing the current status of country’s railways and Vision-2030 document that would soon follow. The Railway Minister Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu has come out with a five-year action plan to transform the ailing Indian Railways that entails an investment of Rs 8,56,020 crore. The mega investment is slated to be mobilised from multiple sources like multilateral development banks, pension funds. Railways intends to partner with key stakeholders like state governments, public sector corporations, multilateral and bi-lateral organisation and other national governments to gain access to long-term financing and technology from overseas. Indian Railways is opened for 100% foreign direct investment (FDI) in various sectors while retaining its overall ownership. It has also invited domestic private sector to improve the last mile connectivity, expand the fleet of rolling stock and modernisation of station infrastructure. It also sought partnership of Members of Parliament for sourcing from MP Local Area Development Fund and municipal corporations wherever necessary.
The private-public partnership (PPP) cell of Railways will be revamped to make it result oriented, “Foreign Rail Technology Cooperation scheme” will be launched. Joint ventures will be set up with States for focused project development, resource mobilization, land acquisition, project implementation and monitoring of critical rail projects. In order to meet the requirements of new lines JVs will also be set up with major public sector customers.
Without putting much pressure on the common man, Prabhu intends to mobilise funds for modernising the railway infrastructure. His predecessors had made some humble attempts but had not met with much success. The Railway Minister intends not to depend upon gross budgetary support (GBS) or extra budgetary support from the general exchequer and seek innovative ways of raising funds. However, he has been able arrest the fall in Annual Plan size of the Railways and raise it by to 52% to be at Rs 1,00,011 crore in 2015-16. Out of this 41.6% resources will come from Central Government support while 17.8 % will be generated from internal resources.
Revamping management practices, systems, processes, and re-tooling of human resources will be taken up by the Railways to achieve targeted operating ratio for 2015-16 at 88.5%. Fast decision making, tight accountability, improved management information systems and better training and development of human resource will also be part of the action plan to achieve the goals.
If it is the Modinomics that is laying the foundation of new economic agenda, it is Prabhu’s innovative strategy that can be called “Prabhunovation” that seeks to bring a turnaround in Indian Railways.
Critics say that the Railway Minister in his annual budget has not prescribed any timeline, but Prabhu’s strategy needs to be understood as part of the five-year vision plan.
The annual budget has not seen any hike in passenger fare, giving much relief to the common man. But basic freight rates of cement, coal, grains and pulses, urea, scrap and pig iron, slag, groundnut oil, bitumen and coal tar have been hiked in the range of 2.1% to 10%. The hikes in the case of iron or steel, iron ore (produced in the country) and kerosene has been marginal and limited to only 0.8%, while that of limestone, dolomite and manganese and high speed diesel oil have been marginally decreased. It is evident that cross subsidization of passenger fares by freight rate still continues.
The Railway Minister’s decision not to hike passenger fare has a rationale. The estimated diesel traction of Rs 24,220 crore out of the total estimated fuel cost of Rs 35,046 crore can be revised downwards due to the fall in global prices. Prabhu has been wise not to effect any hike in passenger fares.
Not that Prabhu has kept the development works in abeyance till resources are mobilised. Seventy seven projects covering 9,400 km of doubling/tripling/quadrupling works along with electrification, covering almost all states, at a cost of Rs. 96,182 crore will be taken up. Traffic facility works a top priority with outlay of Rs. 2374 crore have been proposed. In order to accelerate the pace of Railway electrification, 6,608 route kilometres will be sanctioned for 2015-16, an increase of 1330% over the previous year.
As per the Budget proposal, the speed of 9 railway corridors will be increased from existing 110 and 130 kmph to 160 and 200 kmph respectively so that inter-metro journeys like Delhi-Kolkata and Delhi-Mumbai can be completed overnight. Average speed of freight trains in empty and loaded conditions, will be enhanced to 100 kmph for empty freight trains and 75 kmph for loaded trains.
In order to make ticketing more passenger friendly the Budget proposes “operation five minutes” for issuing unreserved tickets, hot buttons, coin vending machines, concessional e-tickets for differently abled travelers, for booking tickets a multi-lingual e-portal will be developed. Crediting of refunds through banks and unreserved tickets on Smart phones will be available. Proliferation of automatic ticket vending machines with smart cards and currency options, integrated ticketing system on the lines of rail-cum-road tickets, Defence Travel System developed for elimination of Warrants have also been proposed in the Budget.
The Budget has proposed e-catering to select meals from an array of choices. Ordering food through IRCTC website at the time of booking of tickets; integrating best food chains into this project; setting up of Base Kitchens in specified divisions to be run by reputed agencies for serving quality food and expansion of water vending machines will be taken up.
Hand-held terminals to Travelling Ticket Examiners (TTEs) for verification of passengers will now be provided for verification of passengers, possibility of extending facility of SMS on mobiles as a valid proof of travel for PRS tickets will be explored. A centrally managed Railway Display Network in over 2000 stations in next two years will be included besides “SMS Alert” service to inform passengers in advance of the updated arrival/departure time of trains at starting or destination stations.
For the safety of women passengers surveillance cameras will be provided on a pilot basis in selected mainline coaches and ladies’ compartments of suburban coaches.
The Railways will also take up a project for introducing on-board entertainment on select Shatabdi trains; Mobile phone charging facilities will be provided in general class coaches & will be increased in sleeper class coaches.
The Railways has proposed to revamp its station development policy completely and simplifies process for faster development by inviting open bids. It has proposed to develop 10 Satellite Railway terminals in major cities with twin purpose of decongesting the city and providing services to suburban passengers.
Now, 200 more stations to come under Adarsh Station scheme; Wi - Fi to be provided at B category stations; facility of self-operated lockers will be available at stations. Passenger capacity in identified trains will be augmented; more General class coaches will be added in identified trains. The Railways has also approached NID to design user friendly ladders for climbing upper berths. It has also proposed more quota of lower berths for senior citizens. TTEs will now be instructed to help senior citizens, pregnant women and differently-abled persons in obtaining lower berths; middle bay of coaches to be reserved for women and senior citizen. Provision of Rs. 120 crore has been made for Lifts and escalator; newly manufactured coaches will now be Braille enabled; building wider entrances for the ease of differently-abled passengers; allocation for passenger amenities up by 67%.
Rail Budget has also proposed Coastal Connectivity Program in partnership with ports for Nargol, Chharra, Dighi, Rewas and Tuna. Besides this, projects worth Rs 2500 crore will be taken up through BOT/ Annuity route. These include Wardha- Nagpur 3rd line, Kazipet-Vijaywada 3rd line, Bhadrak –Nargundi 3rd line and Bhuj- Nalia Gauge Conversion.
The Budget proposes constituting an innovation council called “Kayakalp” for business re-engineering and introducing a spirit of innovation in Railways besides setting up of Technology portal to invite innovative technological solutions. Four Railway Research Centers in select universities for fundamental research have also been proposed besides ‘Malaviya Chair’ for Railway Technology at IIT (BHU), Varanasi.
Declaring safety of paramount importance for Railways, an action plan has been proposed for accident prone areas. The Budget also proposes 970 ROB/RUBs and other safety-related works to eliminate 3438 level crossings at a total expense of Rs. 6,581 crore, 2600% higher than the previous year. Train Protection Warning System and Train Collision Avoidance System will be installed on select routes at the earliest.
In order to make travel on Indian Railways a happy experience, the Budget has given thrust on Cleanliness and proposes a new department for keeping stations and trains clean under Swachh Rail Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. New toilets will be built at 650 additional stations; online booking of disposable bed rolls will be made available. 24X7 helpline number 138;toll-free number 182 for security related complaints have also been proposed in the budget.
According to some estimates, Railways need Rs 50,000 crore yearly for the next ten years to complete all ongoing projects. Add to this is Prabhu’s new agenda. Much has been talked about Modinomics paving the way for new economic agenda. It is also time to watch Prabhunovation in action.
(Ashok B Sharma is a senior Columnist writing on strategic and policy issues in several Indian and international newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at email@example.com His mobile phone number +91-9010902204)