Column: Budget blues and reds

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SummaryIf you want to know what is fundamentally wrong with the Indian economy, go no farther than the Railway Budget, which each year appears as a curtain raiser to the main event.

Chidambaram may want to be tough but the clincher will be whether the UPA leadership thinks elections are this year or the next

If you want to know what is fundamentally wrong with the Indian economy, go no farther than the Railway Budget, which each year appears as a curtain raiser to the main event. I almost think it has been devised to make even the most irresponsible finance minister look good. India is unique in having a Railway budget. It is one of the largest industries anywhere in the world in terms of employment. It is also one of the worst-run in terms of accidents, passenger welfare, value for money and technical sophistication. Platforms are crowded and dangerous. You can barely hear the announcements and there is little hope that trains will run according to schedule. Platforms get changed and you can never hear the announcements in time and hence a mad rush follows when the train arrives on the wrong platform. Stairs between the platforms across bridges are most often in need of repairs and the bridges are also narrow and dangerous. Trains are overcrowded; the food is inedible. Rail travel is a health hazard.

The railway ministry has been for years notoriously run as fiefdom by whoever the most difficult ally in the ruling coalition is. The minister then proceeds in budget after budget to send new schemes to his/her state, pads employment for his/her state, adds trains for which the economic fare is never charged and, except by creative accounting as Lalu Yadav resorted to, only adds to the deficit. China has a high-speed train that, even after an initial setback, it has been able to revive and extend. India has the oldest railway system in Asia and perhaps the most technologically backward. There is cross-subsidisation from freight to passenger only because for years ministers have not had the heart to charge proper prices (this year, we are promised better; we shall see). I am told that on the Railway Board even the consumers’ representatives have been urging higher fares

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