Earlier today, the Union Cabinet announced the merger of the Railways Budget with the Union Budget.  All proposals under the Railways Budget will now be a part of the Union Budget.  However, to ensure detailed scrutiny, the Ministry’s expenditure will be discussed in Parliament.  Further, Railways will continue to maintain its autonomy and financial decision making powers.  In light of this, this post discusses some of the ways in which Railways is financed, and issues it faces with regard to financing. Separation of Railways Budget and its financial implications The Railways Budget was separated from the Union Budget in 1924.  While the Union Budget looks at the overall revenue and expenditure of the central government, the Railways Budget looks at the revenue and expenditure of the Ministry of Railways.  At that time, the proportion of Railways Budget was much higher as compared to the Union Budget.  The separation of the Budgets was done to ensure that the central government receives an assured contribution from the Railways revenues.  However, in the last few years, Railways’ finances have deteriorated and it has been struggling to generate enough surplus to invest in improving its infrastructure. Indian Railways is primarily financed through budgetary support from the central government, its own internal resources (freight and passenger revenue, leasing of railway land, etc.), and external resources (market borrowings, public private partnerships, joint ventures, or market financing). Every year, all ministries, except Railways, get support from the central government based on their estimated revenue and expenditure for the year.  The Railways Ministry is provided with a gross budgetary support from the central government in order to expand its network.  However, unlike other Ministries, Railways pays a return on this investment every year, known as dividend.  The rate of this dividend is currently at around 5%, and also includes the interest on government budgetary support received in the previous years. Various Committees have observed that the system of receiving support from the government and then paying back dividend is counter-productive.  It was recommended that the practice of paying dividend can be avoided until the financial health of Railways improves.  In the announcement made today, the requirement to pay dividend to the central government has been removed.  This would save the Ministry from the liability of paying around Rs 9,700 crore as dividend to the central government every year.  However, Railways will continue to get gross budgetary support from the central government. Declining internal revenue In addition to its core business of providing transportation, Railways also has several social obligations such as: (i) providing certain passenger and coaching services at below cost fares, (ii) running uneconomic branch lines (connectivity to remote areas), and (iii) granting concessions to various categories of people (like senior citizens, children, etc.).  All these add up to about Rs 30,000 crore.  Other inelastic expenses of Railways include pension charges, fuel expenses, lease payments, etc.  Such expenses do not leave any financial room for the Railways to make any infrastructure investments. Railways1 In the last few years, Railways has been struggling due to a decline in its revenue from passenger and freight traffic.  In addition, the support from the central government has broadly remained constant. In 2015-16, the gross budgetary support and internal revenue saw a decline, while there was some increase in the extra budgetary resources (shown in Figure 1).   Railways’ internal revenue primarily comes from freight traffic (about 65%), followed by passenger traffic (about 25%).  About one-third of the passenger revenue comes from first class passenger traffic and the remaining two-third comes from second class passenger traffic.  In 2015-16, Railways passenger traffic decreased by 4% and total passenger revenue decreased by 10% from the budget estimates.  While revenue from second class saw a decrease of 13%, revenue from first class traffic decreased by 3%.  In the last few years, Railways’ internal sources have been declining, primarily due to a decline in both passenger as well as freight traffic. Freight traffic Railways2The share of Railways in total freight traffic has declined from 89% to 30% over the last 60 years, with most of the share moving towards roads (see Figure 2).  With regard to freight traffic, Railways generates most of its revenue from the transportation of coal (about 44%), followed by cement (8%), iron ore (7%), and food-grains (7%).  In 2015-16, freight traffic decreased by 10%, and freight earnings reduced by 5% from the budget estimates. The Railways Budget for 2016-17 estimates an increase of 12% in passenger revenue and a 0.26% increase in passenger traffic.  Achieving a 12% increase in revenue without a corresponding increase in traffic will require an increase in fares. Flexi fares and passenger traffic A few days ago, the Ministry of Railways introduced a flexi-fare system for certain categories of trains.  Under this system, the base fare for Rajdhani, Duronto and Shatabdi trains will increase by 10% with every 10% of berths sold, subject to a ceiling of up to 1.5 times the base fare.  While this could also be a way for Railways to improve its revenue, it has raised concerns about train fares becoming more expensive.  Note that the flexi-fare system will apply only to first class passenger traffic, which contributes to about 8% of the total Railways revenue.  It remains to be seen if the new system increases Railways revenue, or further decreases passenger traffic (people choosing other modes of travel, such as airways, if fares increase significantly). While the Railways is trying to improve revenue by raising fares, this may increase the financial burden on passengers.  In the past, various Parliamentary Committees have observed that the investment planning in Railways from the government’s side is politically driven rather than need driven.  This has resulted in the extension of uneconomic, un-remunerative, yet socially desirable projects in every budget.  It has been recommended that projects based on social and commercial considerations must be categorised separately in the Railways accounts, and funding for the former must come from the central or state governments.  It has also been recommended that Railways should bring in more accuracy in determining its public service obligations. The decision to merge the Railways Budget with the Union Budget seems to be on the lines of several of these recommendations.  However, it remains to be seen whether merging the Railway Budget with the Union Budget will  improve the transporter’s finances or if it would require bringing in more reforms.



The Airports Economic Regulatory Authority of India (Amendment) Bill, 2021 was passed by Parliament on August 4, 2021.  It amends the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority of India Act, 2008.  This Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha during the budget session this year in March 2021.  Subsequently, it was referred to the Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism, and Culture, which submitted its report on July 22, 2021.

Typically, cities have one civilian airport which provides all aeronautical services in that area.  These services include air traffic management, landing and parking of aircraft, and ground handling services.  This makes airports natural monopolies in the area.  To ensure that private airport operators do not misuse their monopoly, the need for an independent tariff regulator in the airport sector was felt.  Hence, the Airport Economic Regulatory Authority (AERA) was established as an independent body under the 2008 Act to regulate tariffs and other charges (development fee and passenger service fee) for aeronautical services at major airports.  

For the remaining airports, these tariffs are determined by the Airports Authority of India (AAI), which is a body under the Ministry of Civil Aviation.  In addition, AAI leases out airports under the public-private partnership (PPP) model for operation, management, and development.  Before AERA was set up, AAI determined and fixed the aeronautical charges for all airports.  It also prescribed performance standards for all airports and monitored them.  Various committees had noted that AAI performed the role of airport operator as well as the regulator, which resulted in a conflict of interest.

The 2008 Act designates an airport as a major airport if it has an annual passenger traffic of at least 35 lakh.  The central government may also designate any airport as a major airport through a notification.  The Bill adds that the central government may group airports and notify the group as a major airport.  Thus, when a small airport will be clubbed in a group and the group is notified as a major airport, its tariff will be determined by AERA instead of AAI.  Note that AERA will not determine the tariff if such tariff or tariff structures or the amount of development fees has been incorporated in the bidding document, which is the basis for the award of operatorship of that airport.

The amendments under the Bill raise some concerns regarding the grouping of airports and the capacity of the regulator.

  • Grouping of airports: The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill states that government will club together profit-making and loss-making airports and offer them as a package in PPP mode to the prospective bidders.  This may be a policy decision to revive loss-making airports.  With the passage of the Bill, AERA will treat a group of airports as one entity.  One of the ways in which tariffs may be structured for the grouped entity would be through cross-subsidies.  This would involve compensating loss-making airports with the revenue generated from the profit-making airports.  If such a model is used, it may increase the cost of services to the end-consumers of profit-making airports or could reduce the profitability of such airports.  The experiences from other sectors such as electricity show that cross-subsidisation may lead to pricing problems in long term. 
  • Capacity of the regulator: AERA was created to provide a level playing field in the aviation sector and resolve the conflict of interest that arises with AAI both operating and regulating tariffs at airports.  During the examination of the AERA Bill, 2007 by the Standing Committee, the Ministry of Civil Aviation informed the Committee that AERA should regulate tariff and monitor performance standards only at major airports.  Depending upon future developments in the sector, and as the regulator built its capacity, other functions could be subsequently assigned to the regulator.

As of 2020, there are 125 operational airports in India (includes international airports, customs airports, and civil enclaves).  The number of airports under the purview of AERA increased from 11 in 2007 to 24 in 2019.  For the remaining airports, tariffs are still determined by AAI.  In the last five years (2014 to 2019), air passenger traffic increased from 11.3 crore to 34.9 crore (which is an annual growth rate of 10%).  Till 2030-31, air traffic in the country is expected to continue growing at an average annual rate of 10-11%

Before 2019, an airport with annual passenger traffic of at least 15 lakh was considered a major airport.  In 2019, the AERA Act was amended to increase this threshold to 35 lakh.  The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the 2019 Bill stated that the exponential growth of the aviation sector has put tremendous pressure on AERA, while its resources are limited.  Therefore, if too many airports come under the purview of AERA, it will not be able to perform its functions efficiently.  Consequently, in 2019, the number of airports under the purview of AERA was reduced.  Now, with the passage of the 2021 Bill, AERA will have to again regulate tariffs at more airports as and when notified by the central government.  Thus, the capacity of AERA may be needed to be enhanced for extending its scope to other airports.

Table 1: List of major airports in India (as of June 2019)

























Source: AERA website as accessed on August 2, 2021; PRS.