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Measures to woo the middle class

Pawan Kumar Bansal has walked a tightrope with his Union Rail Budget 2013-14, keeping an eye on the aspiring classes, while not quite forgetting the electoral contingencies that an impending general election thrusts upon a government that needs to weigh its options very carefully. While the Congress party had the opportunity to supervise the rail ministry and hold the coveted post of the Railway Minister after 17 years, UPA-II’s ability to score points was already constrained by the huge deficits and the dire situation in which the railways had found itself, as ministers, keeping the
aam aadmi
in mind, resorted to populist measures that proved to be burdensome on the exchequer on the one hand, and saw a drastic fall in the quality of services on the other. By announcing the steep passenger fare hike ahead of the rail budget, Bansal and the UPA government have taken the sting out of the present measures, which, as evident, look to please and appease the rapidly growing urban middle classes. Bansal has also reconfigured the previous Rail Minister Dinesh Trivedi’s ‘fuel adjustment component’ (FAC) and has applied it to freight charges, instead of passenger fare, thus making a sly adaptation of a suggestion that was shot down heavily the last time as it was deemed unpopular. Yet the inflationary potential of FAC on freight charges need not derail UPA’s prospects, and it could prove a sensible economic decision, given that tariffs will be adjusted twice a year, not every time there’s a fluctuation in fuel price. Bansal has also put stress on railways’ financial independence, and has indicated the setting up of a Debt Service Fund, intended to meet committed and future liabilities.

Clearly, the current rail budget is UPA-II’s way of positioning itself not merely as the last bastion of the rural and urban poor, but also as the choice of the urban middle classes, which has been gradually tilting towards Narendra Modi’s brand of leadership and governance, although it now remains to be seen if the slew of promises can actually be implemented, especially in the restricted economic climate of the country. Amenities such as wireless internet on trains, mobile booking of tickets, setting up automatic ticket vending machines, providing luxury coaches at higher rates, etc., have a direct bearing upon the hitherto diminishing faith that the aspiring classes had been resting in the railways for some years now. The mass exodus of the middle classes from availing railways and opting for cheap air travel instead has now been tackled to some extent, because of the largely cosmetic changes that the current budget has proposed. Moreover, the renewed focus on safety measures, such as induction of crash-worthy LHB coaches, rehabilitation of distressed bridges, making a corporate safety plan signal a shift from the lack of vision that the railways had fallen prey to over the years.
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