In the days before the BJP-led government abruptly merged the Railway Budget with the General Budget, there used to be a separate debate in parliament on the Railway Budget and, thereby, the state of Indian Railways. This was a serious matter, in keeping with the important role that the Railways play in India’s economy and society. In the Rajya Sabha, 12 hours were devoted to discussion on the General Budget and 12 hours for the Railway Budget.
With the Railway Budget now subsumed under the General Budget, this practice has ended.
The Rajya Sabha has only a 12-hour debate on the General Budget. There is a small mention of the Railways. Pointed discussions on the Railways are no more possible. MPs like myself, with an abiding interest in the Railways, have been reduced to asking questions that get no answers. In the past week, I raised 12 questions on behalf of Trinamool in my speech in parliament, only to be told that I could expect some answers in a month or so, maybe in the middle of March.
This is obviously disappointing and frustrating. It is a disservice to Indian Railways. Yesterday, I published an article on six of my 12 questions. Here, I present the remaining six questions. Each of these is relevant and valid. But the government either has no answers or does not want to be bothered with answering – probably both. Anyway, here are questions 7 to 12.
Q7: The Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train has been sold as a marvel of technology and connectivity for a corridor that is already very well serviced by trains, planes and surface transport. We are not opposed to alternatives but each km of the bullet train project costs Rs 180 crore. A dedicated freight corridor (DFC) – the aloo-sabzi corridor that moves ordinary commodities for ordinary farmers and ordinary consumers – costs Rs 23 crore a km. Why wasn’t this preferred? You will say – or the government will, at any rate – that Japan has given a loan for the bullet train. Why couldn’t Japan have been asked to provide a loan for other aspects of Railways infrastructure?
Q8: The Trinamool Congress policy on the operating principles for Indian Railways is clear: social responsibility, commercial viability. In that order. The Railways has written to Bengal saying that it would stop eight train routes because these routes are not profitable (or ask the state to bear part of the cost). Social responsibility or convenience to the people and users is being brushed aside. Why?
Q9: Everyone is talking about jobs and the need to find employment for our young people. Well, 125,000 jobs connected with safety of operations are vacant in Indian Railways. Why are these not being filled? Presuming each job will help a family of four, half a million people will directly benefit. And that number is surely an understatement.
Q10: When she was Railway Minister, Mamata Banerjee, the founder and leader of Trinamool, had given a vision for bio-toilets. This was part of her Vision 2020 plan and preceded the Swachh Bharat campaign. Once Swachh Bharat was announced, I expected bio-toilets would be promoted vigorously. So I have a simple and direct question to the Railway Minister, the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister. Please tell us how many bio-toilets have been inaugurated by Indian Railways since May 2014? Will all targets be reached by 2022?
Q11: When you give zero allocation of funds for a project does that mean the project has been abandoned or does it something else? I ask because there are many ongoing projects, across states, that have received zero allocation.
Q12: When discussing allocations for projects in states, we have been fobbed off with absolute numbers. These mean nothing. Bengal, for instance, has been told to stay happy because it has received about Rs 5,000 crore for projects. The fine print is in the percentage. This figure amounts to only 11 per cent of the total value of the projects in the state. I suspect other states too are being subjected to such juggling. What of the longer-term sustainability and feasibility of projects? Has funding been secured?
The nub of my 12 questions is this – don’t do to Indian Railways what the government of India has done to Air India. Don’t cripple this national asset. And do answer my 12 questions. Even if takes you a month to conjure up the answers.
[This article appeared on NDTV.com | Tuesday, February 13, 2018]