In July last year, railways minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda had presented the rail budget after Narendra Modi's resounding win in the May general elections. Presented in an environment of high expectations, Gowda won praise for staying away from populism and focussing on passenger convenience. In a spirited budget speech, Gowda rolled out a slew of promises.
The Karnataka politician didn't last very long in the ministry, having been replaced in November by Prabhu.
As we study the new rail budget, here is a status report on the promises made in the previous rail budget.
1. Gowda had promised that the bulk of investment would be through private-public partnerships and foreign investment, none of which has materialized because his suggestions did not mention specific measures that would attract companies such as Bombardier or General Electric to invest. Unless there is a clear path towards profits, private firms will be unwilling to invest. "There is nothing in this entire budget which tells you how they will make it attractive for private sector," Manish R. Sharma, executive director of capital projects and infrastructure at PwC India, had said at the time of the last budget.
2. Gowda had promised facilities for differently abled and elderly in major railways stations, including battery-powered cars on platforms. That remains a work in progress, with neither trains nor stations ready to accommodate them yet. Ramps for wheelchairs have not been constructed in stations such as New Delhi or Varanasi, where it is still very difficult for differently abled to navigate their way through crowded stations and long flights of stairs. “Those who are dependent on wheelchairs do not even think of commuting in trains. How can one go from one platform to another? If the government had fulfilled the earlier promises of installing lifts at major stations it would have made life much easier for them," activist Neenu Kewlani, a volunteer with Nina Foundation, told Afternoon Despatch and Courier.
3. The railway minister had also said that cleanliness and building more washroom facilities was a priority in railways, including suburban trains. He had said cleaning activities will be outsourced. No difference is discernible. Toilets in major stations remain unclean, while those in suburban stations still exist without any water supply or lighting. A recent expose revealed that kitchen staff at a railway station were using it as a toilet at times. Prabhu repeated some of the lines about clenliness being paramount, but offered no status update on what has been done since the last budget.
4. Gowda had also said that setting railways finances right was a major priority. Today Suresh Prabhu mentioned that the railways don't even have enough to cover the cost of depreciation of existing equipment and machinery. The operating ratio of the Railways has improved, however.
5. Gowda had promised a bunch of amenities for passengers. Prabhu repeated much of it today. Some of the measures that were not implemented include computer workstations for passengers on trains, which Gowda had called 'Office On Wheels', and online booking of meals. While there was no mention on the Office on Wheels idea this time, Prabhu merely repeated the proposal that passengers will be able to choose their meals online.
6. Gowda had promised setting up food courts at major stations, and allow passengers to order regional cuisine in advance through smartphone apps and SMS, so that it would be served when the train reached the station. Prabhu repeated this promise again today in the budget. Gowda had also promised linkages with e-commerce companies, which would allow passengers to shop online or on mobile from a train and pick up the goods at a station. Nothing has since been heard about this initiative and Prabhu was silent on this as well.
7. Gowda's big bang announcement was a bullet train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. Sure, a bullet train doesn't materialize in less than a year. But we got some guidance about how long it really might take. Even the feasibility study has only reached mid way. In other words, it will take several months more before the railways will find out if the proposal is even worth pursuing.
Perhaps it is not a bad thing that Prabhu kept his budget shorn of big promises. At least there will be no litany of unkept promises next year.