Expect Results A Year Down The Road

Updated: Aug 31 2004, 05:46am hrs
A railway minister under the public scanner for being tainted. A surface transport minister who stoked controversy even before assuming office for insisting on the shipping portfolio. Together they blot the UPAs copybook in the transport sector.

A seven-day transport strike, slowdown in highway construction and a railway accident killing 14 would have further spoilt the picture, had it not been just 100 days of office for the ruling coalition. Governments achieve little in this span, and a new government with a bulky coalition achieves even less.

In a press release issued on Monday, the Railways tomtommed the fact that accidents stood reduced to 78 during April-July 2004 from 325 during the same period last year. But if accidents were the only measure of performance and it could be said with surety that there would be no casualty on the rails any longer, railway minister Lalu Prasad could be rated the best minister.

In the lengthiest ever railway budget speech, Mr Lalu Prasad made it clear that the budget was a political opportunity for him, and not a commercial requirement. He tried to achieve a political victory by raising suspicion on the burning of S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express at Godhra in 2002 in response to National Democractic Alliances (NDA) attack on him.

Mr Lalu Prasads budget maintained the status quo on the commercial front. Fare and freight rate structure remained untouched. No railway minister tinkers with this structure in times of political crisis. He will not dare do it, more so if he is labelled a derailment minister even before his first budget.

The minister needs to be applauded simply because he desisted from the temptation of introducing too many new trains and projects, which is considered a bane for the railway system. He has indicated that the previous governments policy of capacity expansion will continue, though the biggest roadblock of financing still remains. Planners are working on projects under the National Rail Vikas Yojana, modelled on the lines of the National Highway Development Project (NHDP), but they are yet to make them bankable enough to attract private investment.

The NHDP, on its part, has hit a speed-breaker. The slowdown had crept in during the NDA regime, and it continued even after the change of government. It is not that the new government does not want NHDP, but preconstruction activities like land acquisition and technical studies are slowing down the pace. Road transport, highway and shipping minister TR Baalu has asserted that programmes initiated by the previous government will be continued.

Things have moved faster in the shipping sector. The new government within 100 days awarded two major contracts. The award of two container terminal projects at the Jawaharal Nehru port and the Kochi port was stalled by the Election Commission during the course of elections on grounds of violation of model code of conduct.

The idea of a maritime policy has also been floated. A draft policy is being debated upon by the stakeholders and, once finalised, will set the course for how commodities move from and into the country.

The transport sector as a whole has not seen too many government initiatives till now, but perhaps the end of the first year will define how development will travel in the next four years.