NEW DELHI,BINOO NAIR : The nearly century-long practice of having a general budget and a separate railway budget is being scrapped. The Union cabinet on Wednesday also decided to advance the presentation of the unified budget. The actual date for Budget 2017-18 has not been announced, keeping in mind the schedule for assembly elections in states like Uttar Pradesh. The finance ministry had proposed to the cabinet that the annual Budget presentation be fixed for February 1 and complete the budget exercise by March 24.
So, is it good or bad?
It’s good. Railway officials say the biggest takeaway would be the end of treating railway budget as a sop-distribution exercise, with an eye on elections. Here on, there would be no pressure on the government from coalition partners to get the ‘prestigious’ portfolio. So far, it allowed allies to distribute railway goodies in their respective states. This was one reason why Railways had been held by parties other than the biggest coalition partner since 1996.
Be specific. Will commuters benefit?
Well, the new move would usher in professionalism in Railways. Projects can be evenly distributed and no single state would get the lion’s share. Gone will be the days when a railway bureaucrat would be required to spend all the time before the budget, preparing a list of projects designed to please the minister’s constituency, said a top-ranking railway official.
Any example of how bad the earlier system was?
One instance is how, against all logic, the 135-km Howrah-Haldia line was chosen for the feasibility study of a high-speed train (HSR), with an average speed of 350 kmph. “Spanish firm Ineco studied the route in 2011 when Trinamool Congress held the railway portfolio. Eventually, it had to be dropped as having an HSR on a route less than 300-500km doesn’t give much benefits,” said one official.
As the largest employer, doesn’t Rlys merit a separate budget?
The Railways’ share in total government expenditure is now nowhere near what it was during the British times when the practice of having a separate budget was established. “Today budgetary allotments for defence, rural development and agriculture are much higher,” said an official.
Still, there’s no flip side at all?
There is, of course. For one, the scrutiny the railways got in the run-up to the budget and a couple of days thereafter would be lost. “It did keep the bureaucracy on its toes. The media, experts and the opposition, all kept their eyes and ears open for any anomaly. That might be lost in the maze of numbers and departments that get covered in a general budget,” said an official.
Special status gone, are railway officials disappointed?
Far from it. In fact, they are delighted. The Railways will now be able to save Rs 9,700 crore, which would otherwise had gone to the government as annual dividend. “The capital of the railways is estimated to be Rs 2.27 lakh crore, on which this dividend is paid. This will be wiped off, and, furthermore, the Railways will get gross budgetary support.