The railways budget is closely watched, both by the millions of poor Indians who use it every day and see cheap rail travel as a right, and by economists looking to see how far the government will be willing to go to tackle politically sensitive reforms.
India’s railway network is the world’s fourth largest but it has suffered from years of low investment and political meddling. The result is a creaking system plagued by delays, overcrowding and slow freight delivery times that sap the competitiveness of Asia’s third-largest economy.
“We are going there; let’s see what kind of budget comes. Budget is coming, but I don’t have any hopes from this budget but let’s see, after coming from there I will read out the budget to you,” said former Railway Minister and lawmaker of India’s regional Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Last month, Indian government had announced hike in railway passenger fares for the first time in nine years, snapping a populist trend in order to help mend the finances of a network whose creaky service has become a drag on the economy.
Many Indians still see the railways as a service for the “aam aadmi”, or common man, ferrying often-poor migrants left largely on the outside of two decades of surging growth that has seen millions buy cars or travel by air for the first time.
The refusal by successive ministers to raise passenger fares has strained the finances of the railways, sapping its capacity to lay new track, modernise services and improve safety.
Pointing out on the vision documents of India’s eastern West Bengal state chief Mamata Banerjee, former Railway Minister and member of all India Trinamool Congress Party, Dinesh Trivedi said that there was need to implement the provisions mentioned in the vision document.
“I feel that you know too much of time has been wasted in terms of number of years, for last 65 years practically we have not done much, so there is a vision document of Mamata Banerjee also vision 20-20. I personally feel it’s an excellent document. I also referred about that. There is a document called Pitroda committee, there is a document called Kakodkar committee. You don’t require any other thoughts, its all there. All you need to do is just implement,” said Trivedi.
The vision document focused to modernize Indian Railways, to meet the challenges of economic growth, cater to the aspirations of common man, the needs of changing technology while ensuring at the same time socio economic requirements of the country.
Trivedi gave his resignation last year after the Trinamool Congress Party demanded his withdrawal on the issue of the hiking of passenger and freight charges in the railway budget.
Indian Railways is also one of the world’s largest employers, with more than 1.4 million people working for it.
But decades of low investment, a patchy safety record and frequent delays mean India has fallen far behind China in building a network fit for Asia’s third-largest economy.
A 2012 official report revealed that nearly 15,000 people died every year crossing tracks – a figure that the government described as a “massacre”.
Clogged freight lines, slow delivery times and overcrowded ports have dented many companies’ competitiveness and slowed the pace at which crucial commodities such as coal are transported, aggravating India’s power shortages.
For many Indians, who have seen their nation develop rapidly since the late 1990s to become Asia’s third-largest economy with sophisticated high-tech, drugs and telecom industries, the ramshackle state of Indian Railways has become an embarrassment.