According top priority to social commitment as opposed to economic viability, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee Friday presented her ministry's budget for this fiscal with no fare hikes and proposals to introduce 57 new trains, improve passenger amenities and upgrade some 300 stations to global standards.
A freeze on passenger fares and freight rates, non-stop trains between a host of key stations, air-conditioned double-decker trains for inter-city travel, sale of tickets at 5,000 post offices and automatic vending machines at 200 stations were the highlights of her budget.
"People all over the country have high expectations from the railway budget," Banerjee told the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, in her 65-minute speech setting the tone of the third budget of her career and the first for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
"Time has come when our economic and social philosophers have to change their old mindsets of economic viability and replace it with social viability and uplift," she said, proposing a plan expenditure of Rs.40,745 crore (Rs.407.45 billion/$8 billion).
"Railways is an organisation with twin responsibilities - commercial and social. It will be our endeavour to render all commercial services with a human face," she said, quoting a couplet of Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore.
Indian Railways runs the world's second largest railroad network under a single management, with network of 108,706 km, ferrying some 14 million passengers on 7,000 trains daily from 6,906 stations.
It also runs 4,000 freight trains to carry nearly 850 millions of cargo each year. Along with the social commitment involved, the sheer size of the Indian Railways is the reason why it is the only ministry that has a separate budget.
Banerjee said her focus would be on some basic but important areas of railroad services such as tasty food at affordable prices, clean toilets at stations and inside trains, availability of potable water and comfortable waiting rooms for passengers.
Her proposals will result in the introduction of 57 new train services, extension of 27 trains, and increasing the frequencies of 13 others, besides the introduction of double-decker trains between some stations.
All passenger trains will henceforth have a doctor on board, ticketing and reservation systems will be expanded to cover 800 new locations in addition to 800 existing ones, along with automatic vending machines at 200 locations.
The "tatkal" or instant ticketing scheme, under which people could buy tickets five days before the date of journey, can now do so three days before departure. The service charges under the scheme have been lowered from Rs.150 to Rs.100.
"The railway minister has done a highly competent job in the time available to her," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said. "She has presented a budget which does not impose any burden by way of increase in freight charges or passenger fares."
The railway minister also announced a new scheme "izzat" for passengers to travel with dignity. Under this, people in unorganized sector with monthly income of up to Rs.1,500 can get monthly seasons ticket at Rs.25 for travel up to 100 km.
She also had doles for the media covering the railways. Members of the press, she said, will get an enhanced concession of 50 percent instead of existing 30 percent, and once a year, their spouses, too, can also travel with 50 concession.
The minister also announced that 50 stations will be made world class and 375 others will be upgraded into model facilities improved amenities."Multi-functional complexes with shopping facilities, food stalls, budget hotels will be constructed at 50 railway stations that serve as centres of pilgrimage, tourist and industry," she said.
Banerjee also announced extensive availability of "Janata Khana" (food for average people) in which national and regional cuisines will be ensured. To improve cleanliness, onboard house keeping scheme will cover 200 additional pairs of trains.
Another highlight was 12 new point-to-point, non-stop trains including Delhi-Chennai, Delhi-Pune, Delhi-Allahabad, Delhi-Ernakulam, Bhubaneswar-Delhi, Howrah-Delhi, Delhi-Lucknow, Mumbai-Ahmedabad, Delhi-Allahabad and Kolkata-Amritsar.
Shifting to the financial position of the railways, Banerjee said: "Based on the review, it is very clear that the unrealistically high targets set in the interim budget are not feasible and not sustainable and warrant a mid-course correction."
She also projected a much higher operating ratio, or the money spent to earn Rs.100, at Rs.92.5 percent, as opposed to 89.9 percent predicted in the interim budget presented by her predecessor Lalu Prasad and 88.3 percent achieved last fiscal.
Banerjee said because of the economic slowdown, freight loading had fallen short of the target of 850 million tonnes by 17 million tonnes, but managed to register a 5 percent growth. She has now set a target of 882 million tonnes.