Does Odisha need more new railway lines? The answer is certainly yes, because the state has least presence of rail lines and half-a-dozen districts are yet to see trains even 73 years after Independence. The Centre, in the 2020-21 Budget, sanctioned Sambalpur-Gopalpur via Phulbani new line. This was, in fact, required. But there is no reason to cheer over the sanction of the project which still awaits NITI Aayog’s nod. The project cost is estimated at Rs 2, 957 crore. Who knows, when the project will get approval of our policy makers!
There is huge discontent across the state over reduction in the allocation for railway infrastructure in the Budget. The state got only Rs 4,373 crore this time against Rs 5,993 crore in 2019-20 fiscal, which is Rs 1,620 crore less. The ruling BJD and the opposition Congress have expressed concern over the allocation, while the BJP welcomed it. The saffron party is of the opinion that the state’s allocation will certainly increase after the Niti Aayog approves the Sambalpur-Gopalpur new line.
Ever since Independence, Odisha has been a victim of the central negligence, mostly due to poor railway network. Neighbouring states like West Bengal and undivided Bihar have more railway facilities than Odisha, even as this coastal state continues to remain a major contributor to the Indian Railways’ coffer. Odisha alone contributes about Rs 20,000 crore to the Indian Railways every year and in return gets only Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 crore. No doubt, the state is being neglected by the centre.
However, there is a silver lining after Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014. The state’s allocation for railways has been increasing and it even touched Rs 5, 993 crore in 2019-20. What has shocked many is that this time the centre preferred to reduce the allocation for Odisha even as the state desperately needs Rs 49,984 crore to construct 4,567-kilometre rail line under construction under 36 different projects.
It is shocking that the State gets only Rs 4, 373 crore, when it needs about Rs 50,000 crore. If the centre continues to allocate funds in this manner, when the 36 projects will be completed is anybody’s guess, leave alone the new projects and further expansion of the rail network. After Modi came to power, Odisha got Rs 3,712 crore in 2015-16, Rs 4,682 crore in 2016-17, Rs 5,102 crore in 2017-18, Rs 5,252 crore in 2018-19 and Rs 5,993 crore in 2019-20. If the centre is sincere, it should have increased the allocation this time.
Take the instance of the 289-kilometer Khurda Road-Bolangir line. The line was surveyed in 1945 and project was sanctioned 1994-95 and delayed by almost 25 years. So far, only 92 kilometre of the new line has been completed in two and a half decades. Imagine when the remaining track will be completed if the work goes in this pace.
Prime Minister Modi on January 15, 2019 inaugurated the new line from Bolangir to Bichhupali. However, in the 2020-21 Budget, the project has got allocation of Rs 520 crore against Rs 350 crore in 2019-20. As per the Pink Book–2020-21, the Khurda Road-Bolangir rail project received a budgetary allocation of Rs 419 crore, and another Rs 100 crore will be pooled via extra budgetary resources. And this was possible due to Modi’s intervention.
Similarly, the 82-kilometer Paradip-Haridaspur project was sanctioned 24 years ago, in 1996-97. Now, the Indian Railways says that the line will be operational this year. The 90-kilometer Angul-Sukinda line was sanctioned in 1997-98. Nobody knows when this project will be completed.
Allocations to other big-ticket rail projects in the state are like this: Angul–Sukinda – Rs 450 crore against Rs 250 crore in 2019-20; Haridaspur–Paradip got Rs 100 crore against Rs 400 crore last year. Since the project is nearing completion, the allocation has been reduced.
The allocation for new lines has been pegged at Rs 1,262 crore, whereas for doubling the allocation stands at Rs 2,160 crore. Doubling projects like Sambalpur–Talcher, Sambalpur--Titlagarh, Titlagarh–Rayagada and Titlagarh–Raipur grab the lion’s share.
It is wrong to blame the centre every time for delay in railway projects. Though the state in principle has been providing assistance and even land free of cost, they mostly remain on paper, as the successive state governments have taken it for granted that railway is a central subject and Odisha has little to do.
Though there is a Rail Coordination Directorate of the state government, it has no accountability. The Directorate should be held responsible for the delay in land acquisition. Recently, Commerce and Transport Minister Padmanabha Behera said that the state government would take up the matter of reduction of allocation for the state with the Prime Minister and Railway Minister. But, why can’t the state government take up the matter relating to delay in execution of projects? The Chief Minister should bring rail expansion activities under the ‘Mo Sarkar’ scheme and give priority to land acquisition.
This apart, the state should make a political move to expand railway network in Odisha. States like Bihar and West Bengal could get rail connectivity to almost every panchayat because of their political will. Modi has already appointed two Odias in the Union Council of Ministers.
The people of Odisha have experienced the benefit of having Dharmendra Pradhan as the Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Skill Development and now as the Steel Minister. If an Odia leader is given Railways portfolio, things will be different. The state had earlier witnessed the difference when senior leaders Kahnu Charan Lenka and Bhakta Charan Das were in charge of the Railways Ministry.
The State unit of the BJP should not remain contented with the state getting more allocation in the NDA regime than in the UPA regime. It should be their responsibility to claim the Railways Portfolio. Then only the arrogance of the Indian Railways can be rebuffed and the state can get its due share.