Nitish Deserves More Bouquets Than Brickbats

Updated: Feb 27 2003, 05:30am hrs
The Railways needs to be complimented for achieving and even hoping to exceed the freight-loading target of 510 million tonne (MT) of originating traffic. The upward revision of the target to 515 MT is indicative of the confidence generated by the performance so far. But what needs to be looked at with a degree of concern is the trend of the lead, which in recent years has tended to progressively reduce. A matter for worry is also the drop in the number of passengers by 3 per cent up to December 2002.

It is gratifying that the dividend liability this year will be fully met and in addition Rs 50 crore of deferred dividend liability will also be met. During the past two years, dividend liability to the extent of more than 2,800 crore was deferred. This liability will have to be progressively met and wiped out in future years.

The progress made in the field testing of the anti-collision device Raksha Kavach is welcome and hopefully the investments made in this direction will bear fruit in the coming years by way of reduced number of collisions.

Apart from FOIS for computerising of freight operations, the proposal to implement COIS to monitor coaching operations is again a welcome step. However, this calls into question the relevance of forming additional railway zones with the ostensible purpose of improving operational efficiency.

A number of steps have been enumerated for improving safety. But the repercussion on safety, of introducing as many as 50 additional mail/express trains apart from increase in the frequency of 13 trains and the extension of services of 24 trains, due to inadequate availability of maintenance blocks for track maintenance apart from inadequate infrastructure for rolling stock maintenance, needs to be kept in view.

The functions of the proposed Rail Vikas Nigam are not clear. The plan to use bio-diesel in collaboration with Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) is a welcome initiative. It is hoped that the long-term effects of using this alternative fuel on engine life has been fully evaluated.

The move to conduct Railway Recruitment Board (RRB) examinations for Group D staff in all languages, under VIII schedule, to bring about level playing field for local candidates could lead to loss of confidentiality of the examination system by eroding the recently hard-won credibility of the RRBs.

Excluding Rs 1,600 crore contribution to special railway safety fund (SRSF) and Rs 433 crore received from the Central Road Fund, the funds received from the general exchequer works out to be Rs 4,544 cr against the budget estimate for 2002-03 of Rs 4,040 crore i.e. an increase of Rs 504 crore which is a nominal increase. Market borrowings through IRFC continue to be high at Rs 3,000 crore, the same as budgeted for 2002-03.

Comparison with BE figures of 2002-03 shows that the outlay for major project heads during 2003-04 is substantially more in case of new lines (Rs 1,005 crore against Rs 890 crore) whereas it is considerably reduced in case of doubling (Rs 443 crore against Rs 608 crore) which directly contributes to line capacity, though the provision for gauge conversion has been rightly reduced compared to last year. With very stiff freight loading targets and progressive introduction of more passenger trains it would have been expected that doubling will receive greater share of the plan outlay compared to new lines.

The status of RDSO has been changed (in fact, down graded) from that of an attached office of the Railway Board to that of a zonal railway. This is a welcome step to help resolve a number of longstanding human resources (HR)-related issues of RDSO. The resolving of the other longstanding HR issues concerning the pay scales of promotee officers and anomaly in pay scales of railway accounts staff is also very welcome. The minister needs to be complimented for these initiatives.

Budget Estimates 2003-04
While an increase of 25 million tonne in fright has been forecast, perhaps based on the buoyant performance this year, the projected increase of 3 per cent in number of passengers seems unrealistic considering a short fall of 3 per cent up to December in this financial year.

No increase in freight rates is a welcome decision to maintain competitiveness. Also the various incentives offered to freight customers and rationalisation of classifications are steps in the right direction.

No passenger fare increase was perhaps to be expected considering the compulsions of the time. With apparently no additional resource mobilisation through freight/fare increases, it is not clear from the figures made available so far how the books will be balanced and what is the projected operating ratio in 2003-04.

Rail Reform
In the absence in the proposals of any specific long-term roadmap in this regard, it would appear that in the foreseeable future the present organisational and financial structures would continue.

(The author is a former member staff, Railway Board)