New Delhi, Feb 24: 'Populism' will be writ large on this year's Railway Budget as Railway Minister Lalu Prasad, the unbeatable and inimitable performer of the Indian political world, unveils his fifth budget on Tuesday amid firm indications of reduction in ticket fare and a massive fillip to passenger amenities and revenue-generating freight business.
Populism will be a compulsion for Mr Prasad, given the fact that it will most probably be the last full-fledged budget of the UPA government before the next year's general elections. Besides, ten states are to go to the polls before the end of this calendar year. ''I will continue to surprise people, but in a pleasant manner. This year's budget will be lot more promising in all aspects, friendly to the ordinary passenger and beneficial to commerce and business,'' says Mr Prasad, who is all set to go down in history as the only Railway Minister who never hiked passenger fare in his five budgets.
Reduction in AC I and II tier fare, free Internet and DTH services on premium trains like Shatabdis and Rajdhanis, introduction of new tourist trains, sanctioning of feasibility studies for setting up high speed train routes and commencement of work on model stations and on the eastern corridor of the Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) are likely to be the major features of this year's budget.
He is also likely to announce the commencement of Mumbai Urban Transport Project Phase II, aimed at decongesting the tracks and crowded stations on the suburban railway routes.
The project envisages running a 12-car service at regular three-minute interval that will considerably reduce the number of trains on the suburban routes.
That there will not be any hike in passenger fares is certain. On the contrary, the minister may slash AC-I and AC-II tier fare to cushion the competition from low-budget airlines.
In the last rail budget, a two per cent reduction in the busy season and a four cent cut in lean season for AC II tier was announced while for AC-I tier, it was three per cent and six per cent respectively.
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 Re 1 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.
This year's budget is likely to have a happy tiding for some 2.5 million people living with HIV and AIDS in the country in the form of fare concessions, and it could be as high as 75 per cent. It is certainly going to be a big ticket idea of the Railway Minister.
The minister 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. Another announcement could be with regard to DTH services onboard some tourist trains, which are to be launched later this year on lines of the Buddhist circuit 'Mahaparinirvana Express'.
With Internet ticketing proving to be a big success, there may also be announcement of booking of tickets through SMSes.
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.
There are many inaccessible, remote areas which have remained untouched by the Railways on the plea that these are financially not viable. In the coming budget, the minister may make some announcements to correct this distortion.
A new broad gauge line connecting two important cities of Tripura -- Agartala and Sabrum-- may be in the list of the new routes the minister is likely to be announced.
There are indications that Mr Prasad will announce a sleepeer factory in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh.
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.
Freight rates for petroleum, steel and iron ore may come down to 4-5 per cent due to reclassification of freight charges in the rail budget.
Freight and passenger revenues have risen 11 per cent and 14 per cent respectively during April-January of the Financial Year 08, giving the minister enough elbow room to go for tariff cuts this year also.
The budget is likely to contain announcements with regard to participation from the private sector in areas like construction of DFC, logistics parks and refrigerated warehouses at 7500 stations, commercial utilisation of 43,000 hectares of surplus land and modernisation of stations.
The Budget 2008-09 provides an opportunity for the minister to set the tone and tenor of the Railways' priorities and objectives during the entire Plan period.