Before March 2020, male senior citizens got a 40% concession for travel on the Indian Railways while a lady senior citizen got 50%, although both sexes had to put up with a gratuitous message etched on their ticket, asking whether they were aware that 43% of their fare was borne by the common man? The railways also wanted to know whether the senior citizen desired to either give up the subsidy totally or wanted to give up 50% of the subsidy?
During the Covid pandemic, the railways condescendingly withdrew the concession in toto not wanting to encourage senior citizens to indulge in indiscriminate travel. Quite rightly, when the pandemic eased, the concessions were expected to be restored - but ‘No’. This scheme is not coming back!
Logically, the railways are eager to reduce their subsidy burden but why not withdraw concessions for our lawmakers as well? The Indian Railway continues to provide free train tickets for Members of Parliament and for ex-members.
A lawmaker is allowed free train travel in First Class Air Conditioned or Executive Class from any place in India to any other place for self and spouse plus an AC-2 Tier ticket for any person accompanying the member. If a member has no spouse, the MP is welcome to take a companion of choice, all expenses borne by the common man! (An ex-MP
may travel in First Class Air Conditioned class, but the companion has to travel in AC-2 Tier class).
Data accessed through RTI queries show the railways have spent more than Rs 62 crore in concessions on railway travel for MPs and former MPs in the last five years.
Earlier, I have availed of the senior citizen concession myself. It does not make a major difference to your travel budget but gives you a sense of belonging and satisfaction, a feeling of comfort that the government ‘cares’ for its senior citizens! In other instances too, the government does provide several benefits to the elderly, including income tax benefits, reduced telephone charges, simpler application processes, higher savings concessional rates through public sector banks.
The Indian Parliament has passed the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, providing effective and mandatory provisions for children to take responsibility for aged parents.
Even private airlines such as Vistara provide discounted fares for senior citizens. The Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation offers senior citizen concessions. Discounts on entry tickets to public spots, visits to museums, historical and cultural sites are in sync with internationally established practices underlying the need for state support to the elderly to enable them to live a life of dignity in their sunset years.
Older persons must have independence, need to participate in society, have access to care and be entitled to a life of dignity.
Overseas, this care for the elderly is pretty common and manifests itself in several ways. Belgium offers senior discounts on non-peak travel to 65-plus travellers; France offers discount cards ranging from 25 to 50% on train travel to 60-plus people; Germany, Italy, Spain, all provide discounts for the elderly on a variety of rail tickets. Why is the Indian Railways alone adopting this intransigent attitude towards the elderly by an outright denial of benefits?
Perhaps the “cross-subsidy” regime that the Indian Railways traditionally adopts when they divert profits earned from freight to subsidise passenger fares is the answer here as well. After withdrawing the senior citizens’ subsidy in March 2020, a revenue of Rs 1,500 crore earned when 7.31 crore senior citizens travelled without concessions comes in handy to cross-subsidise travel for 51 different categories of concessions shown on the Railway Board website. Post Covid, MPs, MLAs, former railways ministers, rail employees and officers and members of several Passenger Committees continue to benefit by way of passes for free and concessional travel.
Cross subsidisation can never really be the answer to the railways’ distorted financial problem. Higher freight rates end up burdening the same passenger who has paid less train fare when the cost of living goes up.
A direct fare hike, pending announcement since the last eight years, not denial of concessions for senior citizens, is the need of the moment -- the denial looks like a shoddy attempt to push the realities of rail finances under the carpet. In the process, it seems as if a vulnerable and voiceless group of people, our ‘senior citizens’ are being used to cross-subsidise our ‘privileged citizens’!
(The writer is former Executive Director & Member, Board of Directors, BEML)