Preparation of budgets is traditionally an incremental process: the first railway budget of the present government took off from the landscape sketched in the 12th Five Year Plan. Expansion, modernisation and development of railway infrastructure were to be given thrust through 3Ps: Public-Private Partnerships.
Budget 2016-17, however, promises a new horizon on two fronts: overcoming challenges through 3Rs: Reorganising, Restructuring and Rejuvenating Indian railways, and introducing pillars of strategy, including zero-based budgeting.
It is welcoming to see promising intra-government (in terms of Joint Ventures with State governments), inter-ministerial and stakeholder-government partnerships with the Indian Railways to enhance participative governance. Procurements worth Rs 50,000 crore were undertaken by the railways in the previous year, largely through a trial e-procurement platform.
Already established as the largest e-platform in the country, rolling out this platform on pan-India basis could ensure greater transparency in the procurement process. Keeping both passenger and freight fares unchanged, the budget targets for an optimistic revenue hike of 10.1% over the last fiscal to be attained by alternate and innovative sources of financing such as raising capital in international markets through the rupee Bond, forming joint ventures with states, engaging with multilateral and bilateral agencies and developing new frameworks for PPPs.
Zero-based budgeting from the ensuing year is intended to enhance accountability and quality of the budgeted spend, aligning the process with international best practices and increasing scope of innovation. Fresh line items could also be added to the railways, without depending on the incremental process.
The budget mentions maintaining transparency in all its operations: being the largest employer in India, all recruitments to be conducted through IT-enabled and paperless platforms in tune with the procurement practices. Use of IT-based mechanisms for internal audits has also been announced as a crucial step in culling out inefficiencies and reducing wastages.
Railways being the lifeline of the nation must aim at proving affordable and accessible mode of transportation to the masses - there have been a few encouraging steps for women, children senior citizens and other marginalised sections.
Women may find it more convenient to travel by trains with enhanced safety measures such as introduction of an all-India helpline, CCTV surveillance in major stations and reservation of middle bays of coaches and lower berths to pregnant women along with sub-quota of 33% for women in reserved categories.
For young children, the budget announces provision of baby foods and children's menu in trains and stations on pilot basis. The budget enhances the quota for senior citizens in each coach by 50% to about 120 lower berths per train.
For the common passenger, Antyodaya Express and Deen Dayalu coaches would provide unreserved travel over long distances. In addition, about 390 general unreserved coaches would be added on identified trains on permanent basis.
Although there seems to be no direct provision in the current budget for farmers, they would be able to access a perishable cargo centre and use facilities of a special Kisan Yatra Train.
The budget seems to have made an effort in bridging the geographical gap of India by paying attentions to connectivity in far-flung areas like North-East Regions, Jammu & Kashmir as well as ports and the Dedicated Freight Corridors.
Overall, there is shift in the trend of the budget from the previous years by putting people and employees at the centre. A focus has been laid on 'customers' by designing a feedback mechanism to improve services of the railways along with implementing the 7th Pay Commission.
Passenger safety has also been highlighted in lieu of which new stakeholders, R&D, new measures and recommendation of Kakodkar committee would be implemented, which is the need of the hour. With action taken on 139 items of Budget 2015-16, it remains to be seen how many items will see the light of the day in fiscal 2016-17.
The author works with Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), New Delhi. She can be contacted at Payal.email@example.com. The views expressed are personal