It’s time we do away with a separate railway budget
On Monday, the Indian Express carried a news report on how finance minister Pranab Mukherjee plans to club the Railway Budget with the Union Budget next year. Having covered the government’s economic affairs for the past 15 years, I would say the report appears to have been planted by a finance ministry babu to test the waters.
Knowing Mamata Banerjee, our dear railway minister, she will stall any such move. Next year’s rail budget, which comes in the last week of February, will offer yet another opportunity for Mamata to woo voters in Bengal with populist measures. Elections in the state are to be held around April. Mamata will, therefore, never allow such a thing merging the rail budget with the union budget.
I doubt if Pranab Mukherjee would be seriously contemplating to push for a change in the coming budget season, as the Express report suggests. Be that as it may, I think the Express report is not without a basis. Some internal discussion happening on these lines is taking place within the government, and I say that’s a good sign.
It is time we get rid of the colonial legacy. It is time we do away with a separate rail budget.
It serves no purpose, but the ego of one politician – who as railway minister gets a national audience in a live telecast of the presentation rail budget in Parliament.
It is a pre-independence practice that might have had some justification when Railways made up more than two-thirds of spending the British government. The situation is very different today, wherein spending by Railways account for a small share in total government spending.
In 1998, the BJP-led government in New Delhi decided to break with another colonial practice – presenting the budget at 5 pm. That was one of the few decisions of the BJP that made me feel really good. After all the time was fixed at 5 pm so that it could be simultaneously read in the British legislature which would open just around that time. For 51 years after independence, we continued with the same practice.
For journalists, it used to be nightmare. The budget presentation would end around 730 pm, copies will come in around 9 and we were expected to put the edition to bed by midnight.
There was never enough time to study the budget, write a well-informed report or catch the tricks of the finance minister for the next day’s edition. Perhaps, that is the reason why successive governments continued with the colonial practice even though it made no sense.
I believe, it is for a similar reason we have continued with a separate rail budget. It helps in a coalition era. You could appease a key ally with this portfolio, as it gives greater visibility than several other ministries and also offers much scope for populism.
I hope Mamata wins the Bengal elections so that she will not be around when it’s budget season in 2012. That’s when the government plans to bring in the Direct Tax Code, and that will also be good time to merge the rail budget with Union Budget. Hopefully, there will be no Mamata in New Delhi to protest.