It would be unfair to suggest that in the first “merged” budget speech the finance minister accorded limited attention to the Railways. Yet now that the iron-horse no longer commands an exclusive budget it is imperative that both Houses of Parliament have their customary lengthy discussions on the working of the national “lifeline”. And not for merely sentimental or traditional reasons; a series of recent accidents have raised grave concerns and there is need for examining the potential of the National Rail Safety Fund that Mr Arun Jaitley announced, accepting a key recommendation of the Kakodkar Commission. A monetary provision by itself is no wonder drug, and people would like to know how Suresh Prabhu & Co propose upgrading the various elements of rail safety that should guarantee the paying passenger a safe journey. The three mishaps that cost some 200 lives were bad enough, what was worse was how a section of Railway officials tried to explain them away as acts of sabotage, and pointed accusing fingers across the western border or Left-wing extremism in the central part of the country. The interim reports of the inquiries debunk the sabotage theory, so the minister must explain why he (and to an extent the home minister) allowed themselves to be taken for a ride by officials keen on diverting attention away from criminal neglect of “basics”.
There is more to a “railway debate” in Parliament than safety-related issues. It is true that members often seek to address their constituencies by making unreasonable demands for additional services, new lines and so on, yet they also provide Rail Bhawan and the zonal headquarters important feedback, realistic accounts of the state of affairs prevailing in sections of the system that escape attention. The debate also enables the minister to enlighten the public on various positive initiatives in hand. It is not as though the Railways have not improved over the years, just that there are rising expectations from the country’s largest public-service undertaking. The officials might find it inconvenient to sit through seemingly wayward speeches, not realising that the real relevance of the exercise is a reaffirmation of the special place the Railways command in the public “heart”. And that the “anger” expressed at being neglected is another reflection of the importance of the trains ~ even if it is the movement of freight that finances the operation. There would be valid administrative reasons for merging the budget, yet Parliament must not be the “loser”. The ministers for railways and parliamentary affairs, as well as the presiding officers of both Houses, must join forces to ensure that a merged budget does not add up to junking a highlight of the legislature’s calendar