Rail minister to finish existing projects before planning more

PK Bansal

Notorious for announcing new projects every year that then face delays and cost escalations, the Union railways ministry is not likely to promise any mega-venture in the next railway budget, its last before general elections due in mid-2014. No new trains are likely either. Instead, rail minister Pawan Kumar Bansal plans to focus on completing projects worth R1.5 lakh crore announced earlier. Sources said this would be Bansal's way of cleaning the financial mess he inherited from the ministry led until recently by former ally Trinamool Congress.

"The number of projects in the pipeline excluding the dedicated freight corridors is humungous. We must prioritise and complete them ensuring there are no more delays," minister of state for railways Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury told FE, indicating new projects would be difficult at this juncture.

"The minister is very clear that railways needs a pragmatic approach and must concentrate on feasible projects which can be completed in a time-bound manner rather than announcing big-ticket projects which do not see the light of the day due to lack of funds. He's not keen on other populist measures either," a railway ministry official said.

Railways has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of delayed central sector projects, with cost overruns of over R65,000 crore.

In one of the worst cases, a freight operation information system approved in March 1983 at an estimated Rs 520 crore has been delayed by almost 204 months.

Analysts said if the minister intends to finish existing projects rather than start new ones, it would be welcome step, and the first in a series of steps required to put this organisation back on track. However, they are sceptical whether the minister, however well-intentioned, would be able to pull it off, considering the populist appeal of new project promises.

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