KEEPING the voters sweet appears to have been the maxim used by Railway Minister Mamata Banajee in drawing up Indian Railways’ budget for 2001-02. With elections due in her home state of West Bengal this month, populist measures announced in the budget on February 26 outweighed any attempt to deal with IR’s financial problems. So serious is the financial plight now that IR is having to rely increasingly on market borrowings to meet its commitments.

Restructuring of management to allow IR to compete more effectively was barely mentioned. Declaring that ’Indian Railways will not be privatised’, Banajee gave members of the lower house no indication that the radical reforms favoured by the Rakesh Monan committee and others (RG 3.01 p141) would be taken forward.

Calls for an end to freight traffic cross-subsidising the passenger business were ignored, with no increases in fares for the second year in succession - Banajee said that passenger traffic is expected to grow by 9% in the next financial year. Freight tonnage in 2000-01 is expected to reach 500 million, although rates for ’non-essential’ goods were increased by up to 3%. Proposals were announced to raise funds through communications deals, property sales and development.

When the minister announced that seven out of 24 new express services would be introduced in West Bengal, opposition MPs erupted in fury, with members of the Biju Janata Dal party leaving the chamber. Others decided to voice their anger by shouting, and the protests drowned the last 20min of Banajee’s speech. Among investment projects that she announced were proposals to electrify 425 route-km in 2000-01, while surveys for 26 new lines will be undertaken. How they will be funded is another matter. n