Need to continuously improve railway infrastructure.” In Shirdi to flag off the first flight from the temple town after inaugurating its airport, President Ram Nath Kovind could not help but comment on the state of the Railways. The scale and frequency of recent rail tragedies perhaps left him with little option, especially the Elphinstone stampede that has become a symbol of decrepit infrastructure. Cruel ironies abound: Passengers were quashed to death on the same day the Western Railways floated a tender for expansion of the foot overbridge. The tragedy could easily have been averted. The authorities had been warned several times by MPs in Parliament and through social media by passengers. Now the new Rail Minister Piyush Goyal says he is overturning a 150-year-old convention to make overbridges mandatory in Mumbai’s suburban stations. Will this post-facto wisdom help? Not in bringing back lives, but perhaps in saving lives in the future.
While the new rail minister cannot be blamed for the recent spate of tragedies, he could ensure that the budget for passenger amenities, maintenance and upgradation of existing infrastructure does not remain unutilised and then slashed. How does the Railways, which saw 193 deaths due to derailment in this single year, return funds because they could not spend it? Nearly 38 per cent of the total outlay was returned in 2015-16! This too is a ‘legacy’ issue.
The NDA regime did create the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh with a proposed corpus of `20,000 crore per year over the next five years, and the Centre provided `1,000 crore, leaving it to the Railways to generate the rest from its revenue. But the Railways, reeling under revenue constraints, has not been able to put in a penny and it remains a non-starter. How much of the `1,838 crore assigned under passenger amenities in 2016-17 has been spent is not known. The bullet train project requires `65,000 crore, but is there just `12,500 crore for infrastructure overhaul? India needs to put its basic priorities on a fast track.