Former Railway Ministers have hailed the recent decision of the Ministry of Railways to merge the annual Railway Budget with the General Budget from the next financial year (2017-18), but they have also expressed their concern over the Ministry losing its autonomy in the process, adding that the views should be considered their personal.
Pawan Bansal, former Railway Minister and senior Congress leader, told The Sunday Guardian, “As an individual, I do not find anything wrong in the Railway Budget being merged with the General Budget. I think it would serve a good purpose because otherwise, a lot of time is taken on discussions and deliberation on the announcement of new trains, new lines, overbridges, underpasses, etc. Though all that isvery essential, it creates a lot of ruckus in the House after the ministers’ speech and this can be avoided.”
Bansal also added that when the Railway Budget was started, its size was bigger than that of the General Budget and from the Railways’ funds, there would be a contribution to the General Budget funds. But now, it’s the other way round and the merger could be of help.
Dinesh Trivedi, another former Railway Minister and senior leader of the Trinamool Congress, told The Sunday Guardian that Railways have lost Rs 6,000 crore in the last quarter alone and the cumulative losses are too much. “Where is the money for them (Railways) to do their budget? We do not have enough funds and everybody wants the Railway Minister to be a magician with the announcement of many trains, underpasses, over bridges, etc,” Trivedi said.
“The Railway Budget was separated in 1924, when Railways was making a huge profit and the colonial British rulers wanted to earn interest and dividends from it, but as a free country, we cannot expectRailways to be a commercial, profit-making unit. The government has to invest in it for its development,” Trivedi added.
Anil Saxena, PRO of the Ministry of Railways, said that the decision to merge the Railway Budget with the General Budget from the next financial year has been finalised and the Ministry of Finance has already formed a five-member committee headed by the Joint Secretary, Budget to work out the modalities of the merger. The committee will also work on what extent the merger can be done at this stage and will submit its report on 31 August this year.
However, both the former Railway Ministers are of the view that before taking such an important decision, the government should have held debates and discussions with all the stakeholders and political parties. “When the government plans to change the form of presentation of the budget, which is an important exercise, it should have been appropriate for the government to call for an all-party discussion and arrive at a consensus,” Bansal said.
Dinesh Trivedi said, “It is a very important decision and requires a debate not only in Parliament, but among all stakeholders, especially Railways and persons who understand the functioning of the Ministry of Railways and they (the Central government) should have taken Railways into confidence.” Trivedi also suggested that the government should come up with a “national Railway policy” which should not change with the change in government.
Bansal said that the merger of the budgets would lead to an “element of compromise” as far as autonomy of the Railways is concerned. “Initially, there might be a little difficulty in the functioning of Ministry of Railways as they have to negotiate with the Ministry of Finance for every financial expense and that is the downside of this exercise. Ministry of Railways would now have to make its financial proposal and submit to the Ministry of Finance and they would be the final arbitrators on this.”
However, the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF), a federation of working officials, has criticised the decision to merge the Railway Budget with the General Budget. Shiv Gopal Mishra, secretary AIRF, said: “No stakeholders were consulted before taking such a big decision and we are completely against this decision. The Railways would lose its autonomy and the Ministry of Railways will have to go with a begging bowl to the Finance Minister for every decision and project. This would hamper its functioning.”