Fare cuts, more profits in Lalu Prasad’s fifth rail budget

By Arvind Padmanabhan, IANS

New Delhi : With marginal cuts in freight and passenger fares and with a cash profit of Rs.250 billion for this fiscal, Railways Minister Lalu Prasad presented his fifth budget Tuesday, adding another chapter to the dramatic turnaround story of the Indian Railways.

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Springing a surprise on 14 million passengers who travel by Indian trains every day, Lalu Prasad said that fares would be cut by five percent in sleeper class, four percent in AC II Class, three percent in AC III Tier and seven percent in AC I Class. Transportation of fuels would also cost five percent less.

The minister also announced in the Lok Sabha 10 new ‘garib raths’ and 53 other new trains for the next fiscal. He said that for the first time tickets would have the expected time of arrival of trains to ensure punctuality.

“Everybody is appreciating that I have done tremendous work,” Lalu Prasad, who was dressed in a cream-coloured sleeveless sweater and his trademark white kurta pyjama, said in English before proceeding with the 115-minute speech in Hindi.

“We have created an organisation where every child will say Chak de Railways!” said Lalu Prasad in his last full budget for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, with an eye clearly on elections in several states and the later Lok Sabha ballot.

The Indian Railways run more than 11,000 trains every day, 7,000 of which are for passengers. The network comprises 108,706 km and ferries the 14 million passengers from 6,853 stations across the length and breadth of the country.

Given its importance, this is also the only ministry that has a separate annual statement of accounts outside the national budget, which will be presented by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram Friday.

As he read out the budget proposals, Lalu Prasad said the private sector would be permitted to build terminals on land owned by the railways. Consultations will begin with foreign companies to design new wagons.

Some of the measures directed at the average citizen included tickets through mobile phones, issuance of wait-listed e-tickets, 6,000 ticketing machines by 2009, LED display boards at stations and higher platforms at 135 stations.

He also announced modular toilets in trains, modernised coaches for some premier trains like Rajdhanis and Shatabdis, touch screens and colour TVs at all major stations and stainless-steel coaches for all trains by 2010.

The minister said that in the past four years, the plan investment in railways had almost tripled to Rs.300 billion from Rs.110 million even as the freight target of 785 million tonnes was surpassed this fiscal with 790 million tonnes.

He also said that revenues from passenger fares had jumped by 14 percent, while income from freight loading was up close to 10 percent at Rs.347 billion in the first nine months of the current fiscal.

This apart, the minister said the rail infrastructure would be upgraded over the next seven years at an investment of Rs.750 billion along with the proposal to set up 20,000 km of high-density network for speedier trains.

The minister began his speech, seeking to assuage feelings of some members from Karnataka who took offence to reported comments made by him that they said was offensive to their state.

“I have already clarified my position. Remember, I had made a prime minister from Karnataka,” the minister said amid laughter, referring to the support he gave to H.D. Deve Gowda in forming a government.

As he came to the end of Part One of his speech after some 110 minutes, there were noisy protests by opposition members. But Lalu Prasad persisted in reading the report even though Speaker Somnath Chatterjee asked him to table it.

“If leaders of parties behave this way, I cannot understand,” an anguished Chatterjee said. “Those who don’t want to listen, may go out.”