The hike in rail fares was long overdue. For over nine years rail budgets provided for hikes in freight rates and upper-class passenger fares but left second-class fares untouched, ostensibly as a generous gesture towards the common man.
An attempt to raise all passenger fares in the Railway Budget last year was never implemented with the government rolling back that budget under protest from Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee. However, not raising passenger fares for almost a decade, even as the cost of almost everything required to run trains increased phenomenally was unrealistic. It contributed to the failing financial health of the Indian Railways, severely affecting its capacity to fund modernisation programmes. The fare hike announced now is expected to net the Railways Rs 6,600 crore. Still, the government could have waited for another two months to incorporate the hike in the Railway Budget to maintain its sanctity.
Many will criticise the price hike as imposing a huge burden on the common man. Indeed, it will eat into the budget of especially those sections who take trains daily to commute to work. However, it is not passenger fare hikes so much as increasing freight rates that affect India’s poor. The former, after all, affects only those who take trains, while the latter hit everyone, since the cost of a hike in freight rates affects the prices of all essential commodities. Populist politics resulted in politicians fiercely resisting second class fare hikes. Certainly a fare hike would have hurt less had the increase been spread out over the past nine years rather than this crisis budgeting, which has left us with a more stinging pinch.
It has been reported that the government’s decision to hike passenger fares was prompted by the need to generate revenues to fund two ambitious projects – high-cost, high-speed bullet trains and dedicated freight corridors. It would be unfortunate if the government uses funds raised from the pockets of the poor to finance elitist projects like bullet trains, which benefit India’s super rich only. It reflects misplaced priorities. The government should be using the enhanced revenue to focus on rail safety. Investing in safety equipment especially anti-collision devices has been waitlisted for too long resulting in a spurt in train accidents in recent years. With its finances likely to begin improving soon, the Railways’ must make travel safer for passengers. It will make the fare hike more endurable then for the common man.