Lalu Prasad seldom misses an opportunity to tell the world how he has filled the empty coffers of the Indian Railways in the last four years without raising passenger fares even once.
But even as management gurus from around the world marvel at his turnaround strategy and rustic wisdom, it is clear that a large part of the additional money has come from the sharp growth in passenger traffic (10 to 15 per cent per annum in the last four years) but also some smart tricks played on unwitting consumers.
Prasad’s tenure will be remembered for the better availability of tatkal (instant) reserved tickets on trains. These berths are thrown open for reservation at the very last but come at a premium of Rs 75-300.
In the last three years, Prasad has more than doubled the number of tatkal seats. Rail Ministry sources admitted that the additional tatkal seats have been taken out of the berths available under normal reservation and this has reduced the chances for passengers to buy cheaper tickets in advance.
In 2005-06, the daily average number of berths in tatkal quota was 43,000. The next year, Prasad increased it to 57,000 and in 2007-08 he raised it further to 98,000. Little wonder, tatkal revenue for the Railways almost doubled from Rs 200 crore in 2006-07 to Rs 396 crore in 2007-08. The number at the end of the current financial year is expected to be still higher.
There’s more to it. Tatkal charges are supposed to come down during the slack season (February-March and August). But trains that see high purchase of such tickets — 80 per cent and above of the quota — do not have a slack season and full tatkal charges are levied through the year. The tatkal quota in such trains has been kept higher than others.
This apart, in the last four years, the Railways have upgraded 210 mail and express trains to the super-fast category, taking the total number of such trains to 350. Rail Bhawan officials said these trains run at an average speed of 55 km per hour and, after the conversion, their journey time has been cut by three to six hours.
However, this reclassification has also resulted in more money (over Rs 114 crore in 2007-08) for the Railways as each passenger needs to fork out Rs 15 for super-fast charges. Today, over a fifth of all passenger trains operated by the Railways are super-fast trains.
The sleight of hand can be seen on freight as well. Though Prasad has desisted from raising charges overtly, the Railways keep tweaking the classification of commodities into different freight categories. Invariably, commodities have been moved to higher brackets — iron ore, fertilisers and petroleum products being some examples.
Less than six months into the current financial year, the Railways have already done four such reclassifications. A congestion charge has been put on specific commodities. Of course, Prasad had said emphatically in his Railway Budget 2008-09 address to Parliament that there will be no increase in freight rates.
In addition, the Railways have raised the maximum permissible carrying capacity of its wagons by two to eight tonnes. Prasad’s critics said this has been done to raise more money, though the capacity of the wagons is the same.
The Railways are confident of generating a cash surplus of Rs 31,000 crore by the end of 2008-09, up from Rs 25,000 crore in 2007-08. There are no signs of a slowdown in Prasad’s world.
6 months ago