Railways in Post-COVID India: Opportunities and Limitations

Our previous article dealt with the changing nature of the railway budget in the post-NDA regime marked by the budget merger, bringing an end to the 95-year-old practice of the railway budget being presented separately to help overcome populist interventions and financial challenges to the ailing national transporter and a greater focus on areas requiring immediate attention and modernisation taken in the right direction. The idea of railways as an economic instrument has acquired a different dimension with the National Democratic Alliance placing immense focus on projects acting as an instrument in decongesting the clogged railway network and exploring options beyond state investments to promoting foreign investments and making the railway ecosystem more competitive in the face of an onslaught from the fast-growing aviation sector. This year’s budget was the least to say an extraordinary budget and to an extent a disappointment for the common population with regional aspirations taking a blow, while capital-intensive projects like the high-speed rail corridor, which have been for the pat years subjected to debates and oppositions were highlighted widely in the budget speech. Projects of necessity such as the Bangalore Suburban Railway Project did not find a place in the budget speech despite the periodic mention of the centre’s interest in ensuring the fast-tracking of the project. What was however worth commending was the interest of the government in expanding the metro network in Bengaluru, which has been expanding at a snail’s pace with just 42 kilometres of the metro currently operational in contrast to the growing traffic congestion and paucity of public transport options in Bengaluru.

What came as an element of surprise was the complete neglect of the private train operations which have been endorsed by the policymakers and the government as a potential gateway to improving travel experience through improvement in the non-core sectors of Indian Railways – catering, on-board services, ticketing. Perhaps the continued apprehensions and scepticism from the private players other than the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation which has emerged as the biggest beneficiary from the policy, while the other players have been expressing concerns over clauses and timelines, which in their view is unviable in the long run. The constricted timeline to carry out feasibility studies on the clusters proposed under the private train operations have been a growing point of contention and slowed down the rate of project execution. As can be seen from a preliminary perspective, the private train operations appear to be a monologue than a dialogue, which is detrimental to the image of the government and especially the railways. If anything that would work in the favour of the private players, it would be giving the required space and time for the participants to independently evaluate the projects, allowing for cohesiveness and comprehensiveness of the investment returns without increasing the liability of the policy on the railways.

One commendable feature of the budget though was the consistent increase in the grants to the railway in the backdrop of its growing importance in the global railway community and the changing nature of railways in the domestic sphere helping the railways focus on improving their infrastructure. The need for moving beyond revenue-expenditure analysis and more qualitative analysis of the need for institutional modernisation and strengthening of the technical institutions to help pace up the modernisation programme and preparing a more objective rather than populist budget is the need of the hour. The harsh reality though is that no sector can escape the claws of populism which continues to hinder the speed of progress and will continue to do so in the years to come.


Chitresh Shrivastva - chitresh.youthpolicyreview@gmail.com

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