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Infrastructure funding cannot be via gross budgetary support alone; like in other parts of the world, extra budgetary resources should also be tapped, says Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu. Edited excerpts from a media interaction:
What has been the focus of this year’s Budget?
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The common man using Indian Railways has a few expectations. He wants his journey to be safe, secure and clean. We have tried in this Budget to address these issues and challenges faced by the common man. Hygiene, cleanliness, safety of women, facilitating online booking — these things are the most pressing issues and we have tried to address these.
Any new or innovative moves?
We have introduced pick-and-drop facilities from railway stations. For the elderly and senior citizens, we have increased the quotas and instructed ticket examiners to treat them preferentially. We have also provided for farmers and defence personnel. For the differently abled we have introduced online booking of wheelchairs after a one-time online registration and plan to increase elevators and escalators at stations. We are also proposing new coaches with Braille-enabled functions for visually impaired individuals.
We will also be focusing on skill development and are in talks to introduce our plans across the country. To execute our plans and projects, we want all states and public units to be part of our vision and overall development programme. The coal, power and petroleum ministries have promised involvement and investment in our projects on priority. The entire Budget is focused on the common man, woman and industry, with the aim of involving the entire country while revamping the railways to an efficient, well-serving machine. In case of disputes between public and private parties, we have planned a non-partisan independent dispute resolution agency.
How do you explain the freight rate rise at a time when low passenger fares are heavily cross-subsidised by freight rates, that leads to loss of market share?
We have only rationalised the freight rates in terms of classification. So, it has gone up in some areas and come down in some other commodities. Overall, the increase has been very, very small. The money to be used for financing of operations has been coming from extra-budgetary resources. All over the world, the money for infrastructure creation is raised in the same fashion. Whether you look at the US or China, money is raised from extra budgetary resources. So, when it comes to infrastructure financing, we cannot depend on only one source, of Gross Budgetary Support. If the finance minister can raise money from the same market to give us GBS, why can we not do the same thing?
How do you explain not announcing new trains?
This is the first time the ministry has tried to break away from the vicious cycle of introducing new trains while manoeuvring a restricted fiscal space. The inherent problem in doing that was while one never quite addressed the systemic issues that plagued the system, a top-down populist approach hurt the railways in the long run. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a solution spread over the next five years to end the problem. We tried to create a Budget purely focused on railways this time, to address capacity expansion and efficiency, while taking stock of the feedback on present consumer experience.
There can essentially be two ways to increase funds in this system – internal & external resources. Relying purely on internal resources is hardly a practical possibility. So, we are looking at raising alternative avenues beyond the GBS we are to receive. We are in talks for raising debt through private and public capital, and have in-principle agreements with a few parties as well.
How can you say the government thinks for the benefit for the farmer when the freight rate for urea and coal has been increased by up to 10 per cent?
We have only changed the classification and rationalised the slabs. Are you suggesting that we should increase passenger fares? The restructuring of the freight slabs has been aimed at correcting the aberrations in the system that developed over years due to lack of freight rationalisation by past governments.