New Delhi, Feb 17: Railway Minister Lalu Prasad gets ready to spill the contents of his budget in Parliament on February 26, with a promise that 'aam aadmi' will be its centrepiece and incentives to business its distinct flavour.
For the fifth year on the trot, train passengers may not have to dig deep in their pockets on account of ticket fare. ''I will continue to surprise people, but in a pleasant manner. It will be lot more promising in all aspects, friendly to the ordinary passenger and beneficial to commerce and business,'' said Mr Prasad, whose out of the box ideas turned the Railways into a most spectacular success story of the post-liberalisation phase.
Top class passenger amenities, fillip to infrastructure through PPP projects, safety and modernisation, tapping new avenues to enhance revenues, such as launch of new tourist trains, and reaching out to backward areas will be the five defining features of the budget, ministry officials informed.
''I have no plans of hiking the passenger fares. I have turned the Railways around without increasing fares in any category during the past four years,'' the Minister said.
The budget will have huge trappings of populism, given the fact that it would possibly be the last one of the UPA government before the next year's general elections.
There will not be any hike in passenger fares for sure. On the contrary, the Minister may slash AC-II tier fares not as a populist move but as a measure based on robust business sense.
During April-December last year, the number of passengers travelling in this segment grew by only 7.46 per cent compared to 23.46 per cent a year earlier. Similarly, the number of passengers travelling in AC-III tier grew by 21.04 per cent.
Apparently, the Railways have been losing passengers to low-budget airlines. In the last rail budget, a two per cent reduction in the busy season and a four per cent cut in lean season were announced. A similar announcement in this segment is likely in this year's budget to woo back the lost clientele.
In the previous budget, Mr Prasad had also announced a token reduction of Rs one per passenger for second class travel in non-suburban ordinary passenger and non-superfast mail and express trains. This time also, there could be a minor reduction for this class.
In the coming budget, he is also likely to increase the number of general coaches and replace the wooden planks in the general compartments with two-inch cushion seats for the comfort of the passengers.
Instead of squeezing the passengers, the Minister will continue to play on volumes --- more passengers and more freight traffic by improving amenities and infrastructure.
''A vacant seat is a lost seat. I will like my ministry to 'play on volumes', getting more people to use the Railways because full capacity trains would ensure a sharp increase in revenues,'' the Minister said.
Mr Prasad may announce a slew of initiatives, like access to free Internet and DTH services onboard some Shatabdi and Rajdhani trains, targeting upscale passengers and foreign tourists.
Internet services would be provided using Wi-Fi technology.
Another announcement could be regarding DTH services onboard some tourist trains, which are to be launched later this year, for the Buddhist circuit 'Mahaparinirvana Express'.
With Internet ticketing proving to be a big success, there may also be announcement of booking tickets through SMS.
This year's budget is likely to provide fare concessions upto 75 per cent to some 2.5 million people living with HIV and AIDS in the country. It is certainly going to be a big ticket idea of the Railway Minister.
Buoyed by the success in down south, the coming budget may also open up advertising opportunities to companies on select trains. As part of passenger amenities, Mr Prasad is expected to announce a separate authority that would supervise cleanliness in trains and platforms. As per the proposal, there would be a provision for imposing fines and and imprisonment for those found dirtying the railway premises.
To monitor train punctuality, a Central Mnonitoring Unit is to be announced where status of trains can be monitored through electronic equipment.
There are many inaccessible, remote areas which have remained untouched by the Railways after so many years on the plea that these are financially not viable. In the coming budget, the minister is sure to make major announcements to correct this distortion.
There are indications that Mr Prasad may announce a rail factory in the backward Bundelkhand region for manufacturing coaches for high speed trains and a sleepeer factory in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh.
Work to convert 17 major stations, including New Delhi station, into world class ones would be set into motion in this fiscal. These stations will be equipped with facilities like shoeshine, automatic vending machines for water and soft drinks, outlets of fast food chains, fully air-conditioned waiting rooms, shopping malls, multiplexes, food plazas and multi-level underground parking.
Freight business, however, continues to be the main focus in order to make a profit of Rs 45,000 crore in 2007-08. The budget may see announcement of new incentives for customers like more attractive seasonal discount schemes in freight loading.
The budget is likely to contain announcements with regard to participation from the private sector in areas like construction of Dedicated Freight Corridor, logistics parks and refrigerated warehouses at 7500 stations, commercial utilisation of 43,000 hectares of surplus land, modernisation of stations and construction of private sidings and inland container depots.
Officials point out that the financial side of the Railways' strategy would be to leverage budgetary and internally generated resources and plough them to service its huge Rs 3,50,000 crore investment for the 11th Plan.
The Budget 2008-09 provides an opportunity for the minister to set the tone of the Railways' priorities and objectives during the entire Plan period.