Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal has not raised passenger fares in his Rail Budget, despite emphasising on the big losses the Railways is making, pegged at Rs 24,500 crore for this year.
He has, however, proposed to raise a fuel surcharge of just under 5 per cent on railway freight traffic. And he has proposed an increase in supplementary charges for superfast trains, like Rajdhani and Shatabdi, and charges on reservations and cancellations.
Passenger fares were raised by 21 per cent last month, but much part of the expected additional revenue of about Rs 6,000 crore was wiped out by the increase in the price of diesel, which sent the fuel bill of the Railways soaring. Mr Bansal said the Railways would absorb the losses of Rs 850 crore due to no hike in passenger fares.
As Mr Bansal finished his speech, the BSE Sensex was trading almost 225 points down and the Nifty was at a three-month low. And in first reactions, India Inc said it was disappointed. "We expected the Budget to be more constructive, but I think the minister was under restrictions... there is no major impetus to growth," Ashok Vijay, chief financial officer at Texmaco, the largest wagon maker in the country, said.
The opposition has slammed the Budget as one designed for the Congress party in an election year. "The freight hike will add to inflationary trends... It's a populist election budget which has addressed the Congress concerns not large regional issues and aspirations," BJP leader Yashwant Sinha said. Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Left too have severely criticised Mr Bansal's effort.
But Prime Minsiter Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram patted Mr Bansal on the back for the Budget.
"The Railways Minister has done a commendable job in meeting competing demands of improving services and controlling expenditure," the Prime Minister's Office tweeted.
"The Railway Minister has presented a very responsible, practical and implementable budget," Mr Chidambram told reporters outside Parliament.
The minister began presenting his first Rail Budget today with a thank you to his political mentors, some poetry and flat statistics to say that unless the Railways cuts losses and begins to make money, it cannot provide best value to customers and play its part in the nation's growth effectively.
His task at hand, he said, was to raise Rs 95,000 crore in the next four years of the 12th Five-Year Plan, which called for setting higher targets for expanding the rail network.
"Indian Railways must remain financially sustainable. The number of passenger trains has increased from 8,000 in 2001 to over 12,000 in 2012, yet losses continue to mount. They are estimated to be Rs 24,000 crore in 2012-13," Mr Bansal said, adding that scarcity of resources and a thin spread of funds continued to be a problem.
Having said that, the minister pledged his commitment to passenger safety and promised to "work towards a zero accident situation". A resource crunch he said could not be an excuse for substandard services, the minister said, and promised to improve passenger amenities with a sweetly timed verse in Hindi to emphasise that he was attempting not to make noise but to bring change.
Mr Bansal announced a revamp of the e-ticketing system by the end of this year, free Wi-Fi on some trains and allowing train bookings on mobile phones.
Stressing on safety for women, a matter of public debate in the last few months, Mr Bansal acceded to a demand made even by his wife, Madhu Bansal, for a security helpline for women in distress to call.
To strengthen the security of rail passengers, especially women, the Railways has created four companies of women Railway Protection Force personnel and another eight will be set up. The Railways will also provide hostel facilities for single women railway employees at all divisional headquarters
He has also announced 67 new Express trains and 26 new passenger trains.