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An accountant's 'chug' to Railways

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By Sidharth Mishra

Railways minister Suresh Prabhu enjoys formidable reputation as a chartered accountant. The annual financial statement of the Indian Railways presented by him on 26 February 2015can be best summarised as a chartered accountant’s budget.Prabhu has proposed to reduce expenditure, maximise revenues to save 11.5 paise per rupee it earns in the coming year. This means that he proposes to bring the operating ratio down to 88.5% from the present 91.8%, which is quite a daunting task.

In drawing a “balance-sheet” like Budget, he has, however, been careful to not lose  sight of popular sentiments and proposes to transfer the benefits of every paisa saved to passengers. Prabhu did not announce any hike in the passenger tariff, wooing the common man but sent  markets into a tailspin by
 further rationalising freight charges.
Prabhu used dollops of humour to put forth the point that to revive the railways, there was need for substantial restructuring. “Our priority is to improve the capacity in the high density section. But I thought, hey Prabhu (oh god), how will it happen,” said the minister, drowning the house in laughter and when it subsided, he pushed ahead, “Prabhu (God) didn’t answer, so this Prabhu thought, why can’t we do something?”
And how he proposes to do it became apparent when the minister broke into Hindi prose saying, “Kuch naya jodna hoga, kuch purana todna hoga, kuch engine badalne honge, kuch repair karne honge (have to add something new, break something old, change some engines and tune some engines).”
The financial statement this year marks a symbolic departure from preceding years with the railway minister not announcing any new train. This is a brave decision as major states of Bihar and Assam go to the polls this financial year. No wonder Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar made a snide remark saying, “This was an address without a Budget.”
The minister later told reporters that the railways short-term aim would be to deliver its best financial performance in nine years and he hoped that this would end a “vicious cycle” of underinvestment. 
This he intended to achieve through what he called “four goals, five drivers and 11 thrust areas.” The four goals laid out in the Railway Budget are – 1) sustainable improvement in customer experience; 2) making railways a safer means of travel; 3) expansion of capacity and modernising rail infra; and 4) attaining financial sustainability by creating large surpluses for capacity expansion and replace depreciating assets.
Prabhu believes these measures will help railways increase its rail network to 1.38 lakh kilometers and freight traffic from 1 billion tonnes to 1.5 billion tonnes, but  market experts voiced reservations on it saying it would trigger an inflationary trend.
The five drivers include, 1) a five-year action plan to transform railways; 2) partnerships with states, PSUs, multilateral agencies and private sector for ensuring financing and last mile connectivity; 3) raising of Rs. 8.50 lakh crore over five years; 4) revamping of management practices; and 5) setting standards of governance and transparency.
Like annual corporate addresses, Prabhu’s Budget too is big on ideas, full of visionary elements and may have a positive impact in long-term. The challenge before the minister is to implement his vision. This he intends doing through private-public partnership (PPP) module, which has so far not been very successful in the infrastructure sector.
 
HIGHLIGHTS
No increase in railway passenger fares
A mobile application to address complaints of people
Operation 5 minutes’ to ensure speedy purchase of railway tickets
SMS alert services for passengers to inform them about arrival and departure
Modern facilities for disabled citizens, senior citizens, patients through IRCTC
24 to 26 coaches in certain identified trains, more general class coaches
Wi-Fi facility in 400 stations 
All India 24 X 7 helpline 138 from March 1; Toll free No.182 - for security complaints
Introduction of integrated ticketing will be done, a defence travel system has been developed to 
make travel easier
Replacement of 17,000 more toilets with bio-toilets
Surveillance cameras on select mainline and ladies compartments to be installed
Cleanliness top priority under ‘Swachh Rail Swachh Bharat’
Travel between Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata to be an overnight journey
ISRO to be involved, 3,438 level crossings to be eliminated
Paperless ticketing, hand-held device for TTEs to be introduced
All newly-manufactured coaches to be braille-enabled
Online booking for wheel chairs to be enabled
Self-operated lockers would also be available at stations
Collaboration with NIFT and NID for better bed rolls
Rs120 crore provided for lifts and escalators
Expand water vending machines in most railway stations
Middle bay of coaches will be reserved for women and senior citizens
TTEs would be instructed to help senior citizens, pregnant women in obtaining lower berths
Toilets at railway stations need improvement
New department to keep stations clean
(Sidharth Mishra is Conculting Editor, Millennium Post)

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