Railways’ condition before I became Railway Minister was precarious: Suresh Prabhu in an interview

Although Union Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu reckons a year is not time enough to rate his ministry or the government, Suresh Prabhu gives the Modi government 9 out of 10 in its first year (“no full marks because our bar is very high,” he says). Prabhu said the Railways’ condition before he became minister was precarious. But he has an investment plan ready for the next five years that should bring it into the pink of health. And that plan, he stresses, will work even if not a single dollar comes from foreign investors. Edited excerpts from an interview with media:

On his rating for the Narendra Modi-led NDA Government on a scale of 1 to 10 after a year

The government has done exceedingly well. To judge the performance of this government, we must factor in where we were, and at what number we came to bat. If India was down at 70 for 9, and now it is 300, will you give credit to the batsmen or not? In fact, the country was down when this government was formed. India’s image across the world was negative. Investment sentiment was low, and projects worth over Rs 8 lakh crore were stuck. No new investments were coming in. Public finances were in a bad shape. Inflation was very high. The savings rate was declining for the first time in several years. This government began its journey amid all those negative features. And now, if you look at the same parameters, we are doing well. If you compare this with human health, all parameters like blood pressure, kidney function, blood sugar etc were down. One year later, the health has improved. Now, we are in the process of consolidation, and initiating new ideas for the second year. The demoralised bureaucracy has geared up, and has been working together. The prime minister himself is leading from the front. We have now a huge international support for India’s investment climate. So, I would like to rate the government at 9 of out 10. I am not giving full marks because our bar is very high.

On whether the government is too PMO centric

You see, the Constitution of India has given some power to the prime minister of India. The PM picks his Cabinet. Along with his Cabinet, the PM is accountable to Parliament. We had an imbalance in the previous government. The then prime minister was not fulfilling his duties. The current prime minister has been performing his Constitutional duties and responsibilities by discharging his leadership role to make sure that the government as a whole works. He (Narendra Modi) provides necessary leadership to all the ministries.

On whether the PMO curbs his independence

Never. Honestly, not a single instance like this has happened as yet. Instead, I can approach the PM on certain key matters and he will be willing to help me. I think, he (Modi) is the first prime minister who has taken so much interest in the Railways. Forget encroaching on our work, PM is ready to help us (ministers) out.

On his rating for the Railways

The Railways’ condition was more precarious than a patient in ICU. I have been in the office of the Railways for over five months now. I can’t expect the patient to participate in a marathon immediately. I have identified the problems of the Railways in my white paper. I did not just leave it at that. I addressed all those concerns for the next five years in my Budget speech. So, my job is to implement the Railway Budget. In the first 36 days after the Budget, I implemented 39 points. Already, each and every announcement has been converted into an actionable point. The implementation of each actionable point is monitored by the chairman of the Railway Board and myself every fortnight. And the monitoring is done online. So, what’s the Railways’ problem? It’s in my white paper. And then, what’s the solution? It’s in the Budget. So, we just need to implement those points.

On his big achievements in the Railways in the past year

The Budget itself is a major achievement. The problems of the Railways can’t be solved by tinkering here and there. And I don’t want to do that either. So, I am focusing one every issue: customer service, safety, modernisation, technology upgradation etc.

On whether his decision not to announce any new train in the Rail Budget will be a permanent feature in forthcoming Budgets too

We will announce new trains at the right time. How can this be related to the Budget, which is a financial document; a policy statement; a vision statement for the government. The issue of new trains is an operational one. I can announce a new train today. I can announce a new stoppage to a train today. That has nothing to do with the Budget. If you don’t have anything new and innovative to say in the Budget, you announce new trains. That’s at least the feeling people had earlier. Look, if I want to announce a new train, I don’t need to go and get Parliament’s approval. But if I take a new policy, I will definitely need to. So far as pricing is concerned, we are setting up a new regulator. It will take a call on pricing.

On how he will raise the funds needed for the Railways when its finances are in such a bad shape

Our proposed investment plan is about eight and half lakh crore for five years (2015-19). And we know where from that amount will come from. We are getting Rs 1.5 lakh crore from LIC (Life Insurance Corporation of India). We are getting reOur proposed investment plan is about eight and half lakh crore for five years (2015-19). And we know where from that amount will come from. We are getting Rs 1.5 lakh crore from LIC (Life Insurance Corporation of India). We are getting resources from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. We are at an advanced stage of negotiations with them. We will raise money from tax-free bonds as was announced by the finance minister in his Budget speech. More than half of the corpus of the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund proposed in the Union Budget should come to the Railways. Also, the finance ministry gives us Rs 40,000 crore to Rs 50,000 crore every year and the finance minister says he will give us more. That itself will be Rs 2.5 lakh in five years.

On why he hasn’t factored in FDI in his investment plan

FDI will come in any which way. But even if one dollar does not come through FDI, I know how to meet my investment target. FDI money will be supplementary. I can raise my investment plan then. But the Railways should not be judged by whether we are getting FDI or not.

On the status of the highspeed train projects

The feasibility study being prepared by the Japanese experts should be available in the next couple of months. I have met six to seven Japanese ministers who came here. The Japan embassy officials are meeting us regularly. Our team has been meeting them. Once the feasibility study is ready, we will work on the funding part. Japan has offered to fund this entire project through their ODA (overseas development assistance) route…The government of Japan is ready to finance everything (including rolling stock). But I must follow the due process. Let the feasibility study come first.

On his appointment as Railways minister after the existing minister was shifted out

I can’t say anything on this. That only the prime minister will be able to comment. This is his prerogative. (courtesy: ET)