The Budget 2020 allocated ₹70,000 crores for the Indian Railways. While a lion’s share of the budget went to railway projects in North India, the allocation of a meagre ₹1,000 for nine projects in Tamil Nadu has come as a shocker for the state.
The lines are between Madurai and Thoothukudi, Tindivanam-Ginjee-Tiruvannamalai, Tindivanam and Nagari, Athipattu and Puthur, Erode and Palani, Chennai-Cuddalore-Mamallapuram, Sriperumbudur and Guduvancherry, Morappur and Dharmapuri, Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi, and Bengaluru and Sathyamangalam.
Railway union leaders say these projects play an important role in developing the industrial strength of the state, which in turn will create employment.
“More employment will increase the purchasing power of people and help in reviving the economy,” said Elangovan, vice president of Dakshin Railway Employees Union. “But if you start shutting down all these projects, how will industries develop?” he added.
The Erode-Palani line, for instance, would play a vital role in boosting tourism in the state with Palani being a pilgrim hotspot. Similarly, the Chennai-Cuddalore-Mamallapuram route is important as it connects Chennai, the state capital with Cuddalore, an industrial hub and Mamallapuram, a tourist destination.
Of the 10 railway line projects, the longest rail route is between Bengaluru and Sathyamangalam (260 km) and the shortest between Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi (17.2 km). Except the Rameshwaram-Dhanushkodi railway line which has got an allocation of around ₹3 crore, the other railway lines have got just ₹1,000 each.
Why TN needs more lines
Tamil Nadu has around 4,027 km of railway lines of which more than 3,500 lines are broad gauge that have both single and double lines. Around 175 km lines are in various stages of conversion from metre gauge to broad gauge.
Experts in the sector say with Tamil Nadu being one of the five revenue generating states in the country, the Centre should pay more attention to developing railway projects here and increase its rail density (ratio between the length of railway route with area of the state).
“In Tamil Nadu, there are 33 rail routes, per 1,000 sq km, keeping the rail density at 33. But, the ideal rail density should be at least 50 to increase connectivity. To achieve that feat, every year at least one new railway line should be laid in the state,” said P Edward Jeni, secretary, Kanyakumari District Railway Users Association.
It is to be noted that at various points of time in the past, the Preliminary Engineering Cum Traffic Survey has been conducted in the state to lay new railway lines for 5,000 km. However, no new projects were announced in this budget.
Railway unions say, the projects hung fire due to the Centre’s delay in allocating enough funds for them. The state government, however, had rooted for these projects as they were announced in the previous budgets after much demand. So, it came as a shock when the Niti Ayog in 2015, recommended the railways to shut down all projects which have been in the pipeline for a long time.
“In deference to the Niti Ayog’s suggestion, the Railway Board in September 2019 wrote to the Southern Railways to stop funding for these 10 new lines. The board asked the state government to take these projects under ‘special purpose vehicle’ company, where Indian Railways develop new infrastructure projects with states in a joint venture process. But the state rejected the idea saying since railways comes under Central government, it is the responsibility of Centre to develop new railway projects,” said Jeni.
“It is an utter revenge on southern states, particularly on Tamil Nadu, since even the already existing projects have not been given proper fund allocation” Jeni added.
Elangovan, says this is the first time in the history of the railway budget that such a low amount has been allocated to the railway projects in the state.
“Based on the Railway Board’s letter to the Southern Railways, the Centre has now allocated just a paltry ₹1,000 to show its disinterest towards the projects,” he said.
He adds that Tamil Nadu is not alone in this. Around 274 railway projects across the country were given up in this budget that includes 132 new lines, 40 gauge conversions and 102 doubling projects.
“Some of the 10 projects were allocated funds but there was delay in land acquisition. These were projects which people got after many struggles. Take the Morappur-Dharmapuri railway line for instance. It was introduced by R Velu, former union minister for Railways of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), in 2016-2017. At that time, PMK was in alliance with AIADMK. But even this has been shown the door,” he added.
Protest, the only way out
Elangovan, says only protests by people could revive the projects.
“For Rishikesh-Prayagraj project alone, the government has allocated around ₹450 crores. If you allocate ₹45 crore for each project in Tamil Nadu, it will be more than enough,” he said.
“However, other than the Rameshwaram-Dhanushkodi project, the Centre has allocated ₹75 crores for revival of Madurai-Bodinayakanur route. The route was closed in 2010 for conversion of meter gauge into broad gauge. But the railway thought to give up the project. After seeing people’s protest, it took steps to expedite the conversion process. This is because, the Neutrino project is based at Theni district. In order to satiate the anger of the people against the project, the train route has been revived,” he added.