Lalu looks for place in history with his 5th budget

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New Delhi, Feb 25: All set to go down in history as the only Railway Minister who never effected any hike in his five budgets, an emboldened Lalu Prasad will present yet another populist budget in Lok Sabha tomorrow.

This budget will be presented amid firm indications that the Minister would announce some reduction in ticket fares, dish out an array of passenger amenities and streamline the revenue- generating freight business by giving a fillip to projects in the PPP mode. ''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,'' said Mr Prasad.

'Populism' will be the buzzword of the budget, given the fact that it is going to be probably the last full-fledged budget of the UPA government before next year's general elections. But there will be a limit to which 'populism' can be stretched as the Finance Ministry has asked the Railways to earmark Rs 9,000 crore for meeting the obligations that would arise from the Sixth Pay Commission.

Consequently, Mr Prasad, hailed as the 'management guru', will have to do a fine balancing act so that the Railways' turnaround remains firmly on the track.

Reduction in AC I and II tier fare, free Internet and DTH services on premium trains like Shatabdis and Rajdhanis, introduction of 'Bharat Darshan' trains, sanctioning of feasibility studies for setting up high speed train routes and commencement of work on model stations are likely to be announced in the budget.

A major announcement could be with regard to 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.

In the last rail budget, a two per cent reduction in the busy season and a four per 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.

Besides, a token reduction of Re 1 per passenger for second class travel in non-suburban ordinary passenger and non-superfast mail and express trains was also announced.

This time also, passengers in all these segments can hope for some relief.

A happy tiding also awaits some 2.5 million people living with HIV and AIDS in the country, who may be granted 75 per cent concession in fare. 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, targetting 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, passengers may also be allowed to book tickets through SMSs.

Buoyed by the success in down south, the budget is likely to 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 budget, Mr Prasad is likely to announce a new broad gauge line connecting two important cities of Tripura -- Agartala and Sabrum - and a sleeper factory in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh.

For freight business, which provides two-thirds of Railways' income, 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 four-five per cent due to reclassification of freight charges in the budget.

Freight and passenger revenues rose 11 per cent and 14 per cent respectively during April-January of the Financial Year 08, and it gives the Minister 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.

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 and tenor of the Railways' priorities and objectives during the entire Plan period.


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