"Actions speak louder than words."
Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu's Rail Budget 2015 absolutely nailed the script, but it's the implementation that will decide how history remembers him.
While the Opposition may be crying hoarse that the Rail Budget is another 'old wine in a new bottle' the ideas encapsulated in it and proposals presented by the Railway Minister - as Prime Minister Narendra Modi put it - could be a watershed moment in the history of Indian Railways. Prabhu, in his Budget speech, was not interested in vaunting and making loud people-pleasing announcements and rhetoric, but seemed more focused on 'doing', accomplishing promises made by his predecesors and his government, and in bringing about changes on the ground level.
One factor that stood out in Prabhu's speech was how he resisted the allure of announcing new trains. The NDA government - perhaps singed by the Delhi polls drubbing - could have easily tread the line of previous Budgets and announced a slew of new trains, especially to poll-bound Bihar and played to the galleries. But that he refrained from doing what so many Railway ministers before him did, speaks volumes. There is no doubt that a populist measure like announcing more trains could have potentially benefitted the BJP in Bihar Assembly Polls 2015, but abstaining from a tried-and-tested vote magnet to focus more on implementation and long-term goals is laudable.
In a welcome break from tradition the the Railway Minister's focus will largely be bringing to reality and putting on track trains announced in earlier Budgets, implementing previously announced projects that are yet to take off and more importantly, for the aspirational class, slotting the 'Bullet train' project into top gear.
After Modi government suggested public-private partnerships in the Budgets last year it was expected that the Railway Budget would echo the same ethos and some 'out-of-the-box' ideas that the PM often talks about, would feature in the scheme of things. As we all know, PM Modi's connect with the Bharatiya Rail goes a long way and he has in the past talked about the need to improve the condition of the Indian Railways by implementing best practices. He has also stressed on the scope for advertising on wagons and stations and leasing space to eatery chains for better food quality and optimum utilisation of resources. And his minister Suresh Prabhu too foscussed on public-private-partnerships (PPP) when talking about revenue generation for the '5-year action plan' that is the Railway Budget "2015-2019".
When talking of the betterment of passenger amenities via private funding, one model that comes to mind is the 'sponsor a station' that is currently functional in Rapid Metro Gurgaon. The corporates that sponsor a station on the Metro line get commercial space and kiosk spaces inside the station and advertising space both outside and inside the station for a set time period. The route also provides exclusive branding rights to sponsors at a premium. Such a model would definitely work for the country-traversing, mile-munching nation carrier whose reach and scope is immense.
Going on the lines of the Gurgaon Rapid Metro, the Indian Railways could also develop a strategy to get corporates to sponsor and 'adopt' major stations where the cost of cleanliness, amenities, water supply, electrification would be borne by the corporate whilst providing them ample space for advertising and selling their goods and services. Railway wagons can serve as country-wide billboards for aspiring advertisers and unused spaces at stations and Railway properties can be utilised for the purpose of advertisement as well.
Lack of cleanliness in trains and on railway stations happens to be a major turn-off for most passengers. The Railway Minister has added 200 more stations to the list of the 1052 previously identified for upgradation of passenger amenities under the 'Adarsh station scheme'. Involving corporates and encouraging Members of Parliament to 'adopt a station' on the lines of 'adopt a village' for development of these stations could potentially go a long way in 'kayakalp' (transformation) of the Indian Railways.
Some were astonished as to how the minister promised a lot in terms of infrastructure and technological advancements for cleanliness, safety and facility of passengers, but stopped short of increasing passenger fare. Prabhu in his pre-Budget interviews sounded like he was well-aware that the Railways need formulations that can help achieve sustained growth, so he shunned short-term measures and opted for long-term goals. He announced plans to audit the functioning of Railways to cut down on flab and plug leaks that bleed the world's fourth largest rail network.
Another welcome move in Prabhu's scheme of things is the plan to generate electricity from waste material. Railways generate tons of wastage including plastic which can be used for producing energy. He, like PM Modi, also sounded bullish on mode of harnessing and utilising renewable energy - these could help cut Railway's power bill and expenditure by a sizeable margin. Shifting Railways' reliability from petroleum and coal to renewable sources is certainly the way forward.
Operational costs by means of fuel - which account for 19 percent of Railway's expenditure - have reduced due to fall in crude oil rates. A Reuters report points out just the falling fuel costs could amount to almost 25% boost in investment. The omens are good and the NDA government has over four more years to turn things around - this would be a good time for the Railway Minister to set the trend for other ministers and let his actions do the talking.