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Funds crunch? Seeking to serve elite projects, Railways undermined track renewal, safety

By Bharat Dogra* 

Several senior experts and officials have rightly emphasized that safety should get the topmost priority in railways management. In financial terms railway safety requirements were estimated in year 2015-16 at Rs 1,54,000 crore by official experts and a decision was taken to meet the major share of Rs 1,19,000 crore out of this from a special fund to be set up initially for 5 years to be called Rashtriya Rail Saranksha Kosh (RRSK). 
This was to have an annual budget of Rs 20,000 crore, with Rs 15,000 crore being contributed by gross budgetary support (GBS) and Rs 5,000 crore to be raised from internal resources of Railways.
Later this was extended by five years, but the resources were reduced leading to funds crunch for safety, particularly when these cuts followed soon after a crash in resources during the COVID year. Hence there is an urgent need to increase resource availability for railway safety.
Going back to 2015-16, while the need for RSSK was estimated at Rs 1,19,000 crore over a 5 year period, actually it got only Rs 1,00,000 crore, so that it started with a deficit of Rs 19,000 crore. However the actual spending has been generally below this too, below the norm of 20,000 crore per year (1,00,000 crore divided by 5) as is evident from the budget figures in Rs crore given in table 1.

Table 1 RRSK Budgetary Resources (figures in Rs crore)

  • Actual Expenditure 2017-18—16091
  • Actual Expenditure 2018-19—18015
  • Actual Expenditure 2019-20—15024
  • Actual Expenditure 2020-21—314
  • Actual Expenditure 2021-22—24,731
  • Revised Estimate 2022-23—11,000
  • Budget Estimate 2023-24—11,000
While presenting these figures the 14th report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee of the 17th Lok Sabha (PSC) noted recently that the apportionments for the RRSK have been consistently falling short of commitments. 
It is clear that while there was shortfall even in the first three years, there was a further big crash in the COVID year. While efforts to make up were made next year, the lesser resources in the next two years worsened the situation. 
There was no need for a crash in the COVID year as the GBS funding was already committed and actually it is easier to do some of the safety work like track renewal, construction and some repairs when passenger trains are not running. There was also no justification for reducing RRSK funding while renewing it for five more years.
While at the rate of Rs 20,000 crore per year (not providing for need for inflationary increase) a sum of Rs 140,000 crore was needed in 7 years, Table 1 reveals a total availability of Rs 96,000 crore only during 7 years, or a shortfall of Rs 44,000 crore. This, combined with the initial shortfall of Rs 19000 crore, adds up a shortfall of Rs 63,000 crore, or Rs 9,000 crore per year.
Unfortunately the railways have been faltering in meeting their commitment of internal resources. This is evident from Table 2, which tells us to what extent the railways fell short of the target of providing Rs 5000 crore from internal resources.

Table 2 (figures in Rs crore)

  • 2017-18—0 (100% of target unmet)
  • 2018-19—3024 (40% of target unmet)
  • 2019-20—201 (96% of target unmet)
  • 2020-21—1000 (80% of target unmet)
  • Total for 4 years—4225 ( 79% of target not met)
Thus it is clear from this table that instead of providing Rs 20,000 crore for the first 4 years from internal resources as per commitment, the railways merely provided Rs 4,225 crore ( 21%), while failing to provide Rs 15,775 crore (79%). 
While providing these figures the 22th report of year 2022 of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) titled ‘Derailment in Indian Railway’has stated that this has defeated the primary objective of creation of RRSK to support absolute safety in the Railways. Earlier a Parliamentary Committee had stated pointing to same factors that the purpose of RRSK is being eroded.
The CAG report also noted that the utilization of RRSK has not followed the priorities as rigorously as was needed, at times diverging more towards lower priorities or even some expenses which cannot strictly be said to be within the scope of safety. 
In fact, even a top priority aspect like track renewal has at times unexplained budget falls, as is evident from Table 3 based on PSC figures. This gives data only for RSSK funds devoted to track renewal, and there can be additional funding for track renewal which is not covered here. 

Table 3 RRSK Funds for Track Renewal (in Rs crore)

  • Actual Expenditure 2017-18—8904
  • Actual expenditure 2018-19—9697
  • Actual Expenditure 2019-20—8314
  • Annual Expenditure 2020-21—0.17
  • Actual Expenditure 2021-22—16262
  • Revised Estimate 2022-23—2041
  • Budget Estimate 2023-24—1400
Facts suggest that there are about 1,14,907 km of railway tracks and it has been officially estimated that apart from this being maintained properly, on average about 4,500 km of tracks need to be renewed annually, but as this has not been happening regularly, a backlog builds up making it more and more difficult with passing years to ensure the safety of railway tracks. It is sad to see that at times luxury trains have been rolled out in increasing numbers while adequate funds were not made available for safety.
Railways has been overspending on trains serving mainly rich and elite sections, as also on prestige projects
In addition it is important to give more attention to needs of passengers of ordinary means, those who have to travel in non air-conditioned conditions and even non-reserved conditions over long distances. The plight of migrant workers travelling very regularly often over long areas in very difficult conditions needs special attention, as also the problems of other passengers from weaker sections.
Daily travelers in train, particularly those travelling in non-AC and overcrowded trains, deserve special attention. The problems relating to the overcrowded and dangerous conditions in which many suburban train passengers in Mumbai have to travel have been highlighted time and again but despite this their problems still remain very serious.
This situation prevails when the Railways has been overspending on trains which serve mainly the rich and elite sections as well as on prestige projects. The first bullet train project was budgeted at about Rs 1 lakh crore but may end up costing close to double of this amount, apart from causing the displacement of a lot of villagers. All these heavy costs are being incurred for serving a route (Mumbai-Ahmedabad) which is already served by many luxury trains, buses and airplanes.
Is this investment at an originally estimated cost of around Rs 200 crore per km (an estimate which is likely to be exceeded considerably) justified? Why not instead invest this money on meeting the needs of people who are t present very poorly served by trains? Such questions are not being asked.
Instead, according to recent news reports, now already plans are being prepared to have about 7 more bullet trains at a planned cost of about Rs 10 lakh crore, an estimate which may again be exceeded considerably.
Hence clearly the proper priorities are not being followed, leading to a situation in which even increased investments are unable to meet the needs of people in a satisfactory way. The railways need to be much more careful in deciding proper priorities in order to ensure balanced development of the railways in line with the real needs of the country, its transport sector and its people.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Man over Machine', ‘Planet in Peril' and 'A Day in 2071’

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