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Upper class travel may cost more
Laloo presents pro-poor Railway Budget today
T.R. Ramachandran
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, July 5
From all outward appearances, Union Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav remains unfazed by the threatened Opposition boycott of his maiden budget here tomorrow which is unlikely to hike second class passenger and freight rates.

Mr Yadav has made all the right noises so far that his budget will be pro-poor in keeping with the Congress-led UPA's common minimum programme (CMP) even as upper class fares are expected to be marginally higher.

Despite the increasing fuel costs, Mr Yadav wants to ensure that the Railways, which is the lifeline of the poor besides knitting the country together, does not become uncompetitive.

That does not mean that the maverick RJD leader will not introduce a spate of new trains even though most of the high density railway lines are over saturated. His home state of Bihar being pulled down under the weight of backwardness is expected to get a further boost as has been the case with his predecessors showing special preference to the states from where they hail.

Though Mr Yadav has had to deal with a spate of rail accidents after assuming charge as the Railway Minister, he has attributed it to God's will and spoken of measures to accord the highest priority to safety. The corporate safety scheme might be implemented vigorously.

There is no doubt that the task of raising resources needs to be accorded priority with the increasing tendency to telescope popular measures with regional aspirations. Increasing freight traffic remains crucial considering the severe competition in this sphere from the surface transport sector.

Whatever the odds and even if the Opposition boycotts him as the Railway Minister being one of the targeted “tainted ministers” in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Cabinet, Mr Yadav has maintained that he will present his first Railway Budget for 2004-05 in Parliament and thereby inform the people at large.

Even though ordinary passenger fares offered little room for increase, the hike in the price of diesel has cast a burden of more than Rs 1000 crore on the Railways. Even the hike on upper class fares will be under 7 per cent, according to official sources. There is also a possibility of setting up a Railway Safety Fund, a dedicated corpus aimed at improving safety standards and modernising the network through better signalling infrastructure.

There can also be rationalisation of tariffs for airconditioned class travel depending on seasonal rise and drop in occupancy rates particularly of long distance trains.

Sources drew pointed attention to reduction of fares by 10 per cent from July to September last year by the then Railway Minister, Mr Nitish Kumar, in Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Janshatabdi express trains which was claimed to be a success.

There is a possibility of certain long distance trains as well as totally unreserved trains being introduced to facilitate travel to labour intensive areas and certain selected growth centres. Efforts might also be under way to kickstart the Sampark Kranti Express trains announced by the previous NDA government.

Revenue is sought to be enhanced by laying stress on lifting coal, steel, iron ore, cement and POL.

Official sources indicate that the Union Finance Ministry might render a budgetary support of Rs 2000 crore for giving a push to commitment made in the UPA CMP of boosting public investment in critical infrastructure like the railways and road transport to reach people in remote, far flung and backward areas.

Some changes are on the anvil in the 9 PSUs under the charge of the railways for gearing up their performance.

Then, the railways might also take note of the recommendations of the Parliamentary sub-committee which underlined the need for commercial utilisation of unutilised railway land. There are indications of the railways going in for about 100 budget hotels at various places in the country.
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