Column : Let a thousand budgets bloom

Written by Rishi Raj | Updated: Feb 25 2011, 15:58pm hrs
Today is once again that day in February, a couple of days before the presentation of the Budget in Parliament by the finance minister, when the railway minister will rise and deliver a nearly two-hour monologue on how clean she plans to make the toilets in railway coaches, how all trains will start running on time, have drinking water facility and security of the passengers would be of utmost concern and how several more trains will be started between certain destinations and, of course, how her heart bleeds for the aam aadmi so there will be no hike in passenger fares. In between the monologue, when the minister will come to the point of starting new trains, expect loud noises from fellow MPs, who, after calculating the number of new trains bypassing their constituencies, will start protesting. As the ensuing cacophony will make everything inaudible, the minister will read the state of finances of the Indian Railwaysthe largest employer in the government.

In short, this is the significance of the Railway Budget these days. However, all TV news channels will telecast it live. Not really their fault if the government still thinks it proper to have a separate Railway Budget, a practice started in the colonial days.

Makes one wonder why the railway minister gets the opportunity to present a Budget while, say, the telecom minister doesnt get the same prime-time to tell the nation how cheap it has become to make telephone calls and have Internet connections Or a power minister is deprived of the opportunity to tell the nation that there will be no more long hours of load shedding The ones who should feel the most discriminated against should be the road transport minister and the civil aviation minister, for why should their modes not be given a similar chance

To answer the question, we need to go back into historywhy do we have a separate Railway Budget and not the same for any other department It is just a convention that has carried on from the days of the British Raj, which required separating the working of the commercial departments from the revenue side. Railways was the biggest commercial department in those days, having a budgetary support of around 75%, which has now come down to 20-25%. So a separate Railway Budget is merely a convention and is not backed by any law. The government, if it so wishes, can abolish it anytime and it should think in that direction now, for the exercise serves no useful purpose.

If abolishing the Railway Budget and aligning it with the general Budget seems harsh on the railway minister, the least that can be done is restrict it to just presenting the financial health of the organisation. No more of cleanliness, safety, punctuality and new trains bit since these are basic features of any service organisation. Why should precious money of taxpayers and valuable time of Parliament be wasted in rattling year after year which new trains would be launched and how clean their toilets would be

Proponents of a separate Railway Budget, though they are shrinking with every passing day, argue that the organisation is one of the largest in the world, is owned by the people and so there should be a larger discussion around it. True, but there are equally important and large ministries and departments in the government these days and, going by that logic, matters relating to them should deserve equal if not more attention.

Till about a couple of years ago there was still some consumer interest in the Railway Budget to know if passenger fares are increasing or decreasing. However, in the last few years, the whole paradigm of travel has changed. Bookings have significantly moved to the Internet. Low-fare airlines have come and their tariffs keep changing with seasonality. Luxury bus services have come up that are preferred to railways for short distances. Even on the freight side, with the distance between centres of production and consumption getting closer, road transport has started carrying the bulk traffic comprising consumer goods and even foodgrains to an extent. In short, one does not need to wait for a year to make changes in freight and passenger fares. In fact, the railways have now increasingly started making changes in freight rates throughout the year.

Similarly, why wait for the Budget to announce new trains when it can be done anytime of the year Last but not the least, which railway minister will not play to the gallery if given the chance to speak for more than an hour on TV while the whole nation watches

If the NDA switched from the colonial practice of presenting the general Budget from 5 pm to 11 am, let the UPA take the initiative to scrap the practice of having a separate Railway Budget.