Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal tells Kavita Chowdhury that despite the fare hike being a politically sensitive issue, it is imperative for the railways
The Ministry of Railways has been for long hijacked by political allies. It had a tempestuous innings under Trinamool Congress ministers - Mamata Banerjee, Dinesh Trivedi and Mukul Roy. Prior to that, the ministry was under the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). With your appointment, the railways are back with the Congress party after many years.
I believe no ministry can be "hijacked". My current assignment is a chance to serve the people. I can assure that all regions and states will get their due. Keeping in view the financial constraints on the ministry, it is my duty that available resources are not spread out over a large number of projects. Instead, pending projects are taken up and completed in a phased manner, giving priority to those on which a large proportion of the estimated expenditure has already been incurred.
Our present focus is conversion of single-track railway to double track and gauge conversion - on these alone, there is a throw forward of projects worth Rs 1.5 lakh crore. All heads, including electrification, put together, the throw forward would be well over Rs 4 lakh crore. It's important that we use our funds judiciously.
There is a persistent demand by members of Parliament for newer lines in their constituencies, and so on. It is, after all, a very challenging ministry.
The regional parties, namely Trinamool Congress and the RJD, seemed to have used the railways to mainly focus on the development of their respective states - West Bengal and Bihar, respectively. Now that you are the incharge, how do you intend to change that perception?
As I mentioned earlier, all regions and states will get their due. My prime aim is to change the perception of railways for the public - Indian Railways should be looked upon as providing hassle-free, comfortable and safe transport for the 23 million people who travel by it daily. For that, we need stepping up of coaches, wagons, rolling stock and strengthening of containerisation of goods traffic. We are working to speed up the setting of two locomotive factories in Madhepura and in Marhora (Bihar). We are also working on expediting the dedicated freight corridors from Ludhiana to Kolkata, and from Delhi to Mumbai, for faster freight movement.
We are also focusing on cleanliness of trains and stations. We are partnering with local bodies and associations to help us in this endeavour.
I have been travelling by train since 1984, (since the time I first became a member of Parliament). I have been travelling every weekend by train to go to my home and constituency, Chandigarh. If you were to compare the bus fare with the rail fare, the former is four times more, despite railways are a more comfortable means of transport. I know we have a lot to do in the ministry but, compared to what the railway charges as fare, it offers a lot.
In your first address in Parliament as minister, in a refreshingly frank manner, you extended an open invitation to states to share 50 per cent of costs of projects they considered "essential" but which the railways consider "unremunerative". You also told fellow members cutting across party lines that the delay in completing rail projects was owing to "vociferous demands"made by members for new projects. You said it was financially difficult for Indian Railways to cope up with these persistent demands and deliver results. How do you propose to address these problems?
The railway ministry directly touches the people's lives, so I have to appreciate the demand for development of every region, and the personal demands, too, made by members of Parliament. But we will be addressing these demands in a strict manner. For a more detailed plan, watch me as I perform.
In railways, fare hike is a politically sensitive issue. As the railway minister, you have already been giving hints of an imminent fare hike.
In the larger interest, it is essential that we de-politicise the fare-fixing mechanism. We are, at present, discussing the setting up of a Railway Tariff Regulatory Authority. As of now, I cannot reveal any more detail.
But do you think you will be allowed to go for a fare hike? After all, several states are going to the polls next year, and the United Progressive Alliance appears to be already in the mode.
Some fare hike is imperative to restore the physical and the financial health of the railways. There's a responsibility that has been cast on us to see that the railway, which has the potential to be the country's engine of growth, doesn't flounder on the tracks. I believe if given the needed investment, it can account up to two per cent of the country's gross domestic product.
Regarding the safety and modernisation of railways, former Trinamool Congress minister Dinesh Trivedi was keen to implement the Kakodkar Committee and the Pitroda Committee recommendations. Are you planning to revisit these reports?
It's not a question of revisiting these reports. The Pitroda Committee stipulated an expenditure of Rs 5,60,000 crore in the next five years. The Kakodkar Committee proposed an expenditure of Rs 1 lakh crore. The Planning Commission has another set of figures. But we have to plan according to the resources available with us and, at the same time, not compromise with safety.
What about the Railway Budget next year. It'll be your first as the rail minister. Any big ideas on the anvil?
It's too early to talk about the Budget at the moment.