Ourview | On track to big trouble

Ourview | On track to big trouble

It is rare for a labour union in a public sector unit to raise its voice against populist measures, least of all in its own home turf. Yet, that is what railway unions have been doing of late. One can look at their statements as a positive attitudinal change or as a warning of how bad the situation—in this case the financial condition of the railways—is

Both appear to be true.

Both the All India Railwaymen’s Federation and the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen have said rationalization of passenger fares is the need of the hour. Both are in favour of an increase in these fares by anywhere from 20% to 40%. These are not the only voices. The Planning Commission, too, has argued for an increase in fares. A report issued by the Comptroller and Auditor General, tabled in Parliament last month, highlighted the importance of reviewing passenger fares and ensuring that pricing does not result in a below-cost return. Another suggestion was that of inflation indexing of fares.

Yet, this has not made any impact on the ministry, especially on railway minister Dinesh Trivedi. Last week, he said: “Fare hike is not a solution to raise fund for the modernization of railway network, including the signalling system."

On another occasion recently, when asked about fare hikes, he said: “Nothing has been finalized yet and it is just a thinking."

If anything, chances are that when fares are revised, they are likely to be imposed on the “upper" classes of travel. Here, it is pertinent to note that from 2004-05 to 2008-09—the years for which clear figures are available—only two classes of passenger services were viable—AC 3-tier and AC chair car. The remaining five categories were loss-making. The quantum of loss was the highest for sleeper and second class, precisely those categories that successive railway ministers have refused to touch. It makes no sense to burden your profitable services and do nothing about those that are bleeding your finances.

This year, 8,272 million Indians are expected to travel by train, 441 million more than 2010-11. Raising fares is not likely to bring this number down. If anything, it may fetch the railways badly needed money. Instead of pandering to base political instincts, the political leadership of the ministry should listen to its unions. They have sound advice to offer.

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