Railways have for long been a populist instrument post-independence. Even as the current government attempts to shed the image of railways as a populist instrument, somehow it goes around and comes back. The Bengal elections are a stark reminder of the repeated failure of the ruling government in drawing boundaries between the railways and vote bank politics. Somehow the governments at the helm of power fail to realize the economic and populist importance of railways in a country like India where people are dependent on the railways for their daily commute when looking from the perspective of lower-income groups who may find even the low-cost carriers as an expensive affair for their commute between two points anywhere in the country. To make matters more complicated, the election becomes a lucrative opportunity for the ruling party to present the people of poll-bound states in the name of development, right before elections. When putting West Bengal into the context of the current election fever gripping it, “Sonar Bangla” has been the favourite words of a few politicians for a few months now.
What’s in Store for Bengal?
Before we move into all that is in store for West Bengal to rejoice from the point of the railway infrastructure, we must understand that it's not the very first when Bengal has been at the receiving end of the potential railway projects. Rather looking back at the budgets of 2000, 2009, 2010, 2011, and now in 2021 time and again economically significant projects have been in the fray or even as we turn the pages of history, the post-independent India saw its first “high-speed” train emerge from West Bengal and sowing seeds for future high-speed rail projects which have been time and again raised by the ministers across political quarters. Fast-forwarding into 2021, and more importantly, the Bengal elections a string of projects has been announced to secure the position in West Bengal. Some of these include:
1. Second Foot over bridge at Santragachi station
2. Sankrail freight terminal (phase 1)
3. Vivekananda Meditation Centre in Howrah
4. Executive lounge along with two escalators and two lifts at Sealdah station
5. Premium lounge at Kolkata station
6. Integrated Security System at Barddhaman station
Apart from these projects, he also flagged off a freight train on the newly electrified Manigram-Nimtita railway section. Keeping in line with the objectives of Mission 41K, Piyush Goyal has promised to electrify every single line in West Bengal by 2023, helping reduce carbon footprints and increasing train speeds. When looking at the current state of railway development in West Bengal, there are currently 53 ongoing projects including new lines, gauge conversion, doubling projects costing ₹48,275 crore for 4463 km, out of which 34 projects in the state have received an only token allotment in the Budget 2021-22 due to unavailability of land.
Despite providing the much-needed push to long-pending projects in West Bengal, it is surprising to note that there are still older projects yet to see the light of the day, which are a classic example of non-cooperation from the state government over the past decades. Barring the individual example of West Bengal, railways in their entirety has been a victim of populist, unchecked, and unplanned decision making by both state and centre, owing to which none of the projects which were announced then could be completed complemented with major cost overruns deterrent to the overall project execution.
The Path Ahead
With the election picking pace in West Bengal and Assam, it is an interesting observation of railway projects being deployed as an effective instrument in securing the confidence of the public vis-à-vis realising the greater challenges thrown at the railways by the pandemic with decreased revenue flow despite the argument of compensation from the freight earnings. The challenge to turn promises into reality remains. The sudden modernisation plans for stations in West Bengal also points to the opportunistic approach of the government with an inequitable distribution of the larger benefits that these projects have to offer. Given the government’s slogan of maximum governance, minimum government, it will interesting to see how far does the government go to fulfil the promises made and change the face of railway infrastructure in West Bengal post coming to power.
Chitresh Shrivastva - firstname.lastname@example.org
Utsari Gupta Bhaya - email@example.com