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Last Updated Tuesday July 18 2017 10:21 AM IST

Cutting flab, drawing flak

Sachidananda  Murthy
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Bibek Debroy

Bibek Debroy, the influential member of the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), has translated Mahabharata, and in his lighter moments, dabbles with limericks.

But what triggers discomfiture in the echelons of power are the serious reports written by this passionate reformer who wants to cut the government's size. 

Debroy, a favorite of prime minister Narendra Modi, headed an internal committee of the government on railway reforms and mooted that the railway budget, the annual exercise to which MPs, state governments and railway users look forward, should be scrapped. 

His line of thought is that there is no need for the 92-year-old exercise of presenting the accounts of railways separately, along with the increase in fares and freight charges as well as new projects and train services. 

Debroy's suggestion to make railway accounting part of general budget has been accepted in principle by the prime minister and the railway minister, Suresh Prabhu.  

Now, the government is working out from which financial year the new system should be brought in.

A former director of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies, headed by Sonia Gandhi, Debroy drifted from the Congress circles in the last decade. 

He had strongly argued for the abolition of Planning Commission, as he felt the commission concentrated too many developmental powers and was not giving leeway for states. 

Debroy, who headed a private initiative to rank states in terms of development, argued that the Center should give more powers to the states, which was music to the ears of Modi when he was the Gujarat chief minister. One of the earliest decisions of Modi as prime minister was to scrap the Planning Commission and to replace it with a think tank named NITI Aayog, and Debroy was roped in as senior member. 

At NITI Aayog, Debroy argued passionately for privatization and making the government more competitive.

Also read: Red signal for 92-year-old journey: no rail budget from next fiscal

Debroy, who dislikes the habit of governments and parliament making too many laws on every subject, had prepared a long list of laws that were redundant. Already, the Center and Rajasthan government have scrapped many of these laws, broadly based on Debroy's suggestions. 

Modi has asked the law commission to prepare another list of laws that need to be axed, causing lot of turbulence in ministries.

Heading the committee on restructuring the Railways, Debroy questioned the rationale of having a separate railway budget.

He rubbished the idea of parliamentary scrutiny of the functioning of Railways, including running of each trains, be subject to the scrutiny of Parliament. 

Too much of populism by successive ministers had derailed the  finances of Railway, he argued, adding the railway minister and the Railways cannot be pleasing lawmakers. Rather, the focus should be on freight and passengers. He has said that once the general budget is finalized, the Railways can announce projects as and when they are ready and new trains can be introduced through the regular time table.  

If railway budget is scrapped, then the Parliamentary Committee on Railway Convention, which holds public hearings to study fare increase, will also be scrapped. 

Prabhu feels initially MPs will be unhappy but once the railway finances improve, then the demands of MPs would get accommodated. In his first budget, Prabhu made a departure by not announcing any new trains.  

The long term recommendation of Debroy is for corporatization  of the Railways. 

Making the Railways into one large corporation would make it one of the biggest companies in the country, with a turnover of nearly Rs 2 lakh crore. Debroy feels the Railways can consider converting the existing zonal railways into corporations, which are held by an umbrella company owned by the government. It could then raise money by selling the shares.  

Critics feel Debroy is encouraging Modi and Prabhu to demolish the character and social purpose of the Railways.

They feel Modi would find it difficult to convince political parties, his own party's parliamentarians and 17 lakh railway employees to accept the drastic changes. Debroy, on his part, is now busy working on figuring out other departments to cut flab.

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