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The Rediff Interview/Railway Minister Lalu Prasad

I have the blessings of aam aadmi: Lalu

February 14, 2009

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Railway Minister Lalu Prasad was much in demand on Friday, so much so that his press conference spilled over into the corridors of Parliament. Business Standard's Saubhadro Chatterji caught up with him.

You have presented five Railway Budgets. What do you consider your best achievement so far?

The turnaround of the Indian Railways. Before the United Progressive Alliance came to power, the railways had failed to pay dividend to the government. In fact, they did not have enough money to even renovate their assets.

But I have earned the faith of the country. Today, Indian Railways has generated surplus revenue. I also have the blessings of the 'aam aadmi'. This is my biggest achievement.

How will the economic slowdown hit the railways' growth?

It has already hit us. We could have generated Rs 1 lakh crore (Rs 1 trillion) of surplus revenue during these five years if the economic slowdown hadn't happened. We will lose surplus revenue amounting to Rs 10,000 crore (Rs 100 billion) this year alone.

During December and January, the meltdown affected our freight revenues. But the situation has improved slightly now.

Why didn't you cut freight rates to combat recession?

Koi problem nahi (there is no problem). Dedicated freight corridors are coming up. As soon as these are completed, goods that go by road and face regular accidents will come to us. Sixty per cent of the road freight traffic will come to the railways.

You could have reduced passenger fares a little more and passed on the full benefit of the lower prices of diesel to the passengers.

During my entire tenure, I have reduced second-class fares by Rs 4 for distances less than 50 km. For distances above 50 km, there has been a reduction of 7 per cent.

In AC 3-tier, fares have been reduced by 30 per cent, while in AC 2-tier, there has been a 20 per cent reduction.

In this budget too, I have reduced the fares. Had it been anyone else in my position, the fares would have gone up. I too faced a lot of pressure but I did it on my whim. I feel proud of my decisions.

Today, Indian Railways has one of the cheapest fare structures in the world. This has happened despite the increasing costs.

When P Chidambaram was finance minister, he imposed service tax on railway food. I told him not to do it. How would the contractors maintain the quality of food with increased costs? Many people suggested I increase the prices of food.

How could I do it? I told the contractors to readjust the menu. They used to give potato chips and those biscuit-type sticks (breadsticks) with soup. I told them, 'Yeh aaltu-faaltu sab hatao (get rid of these inessentials).

'Give sabzi and dal.' I come from Bihar. I know the nutrition value of sabzi and dal. You can see that the quality has been maintained.

Will you be able to meet the deadline of the freight corridor project?

Of course. We are not lagging behind and started well within the stipulated time. We have already completed discussions with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank [Get Quote]. After we complete the first phase, we will take up the second phase of connecting Mumbai with Chennai and Chennai with Kolkata.

Security remains a key issue.

We are giving utmost importance to it. It is impossible to check every piece of luggage manually. If the security guards ask every passenger to open his luggage, people will start fighting. Therefore, we are using sniffer dogs and installing X-ray machines in consultation with the home ministry.

Anything that you couldn't achieve?

Sab kar diya, sab kar diya (I did everything).

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