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Millennium Post

Price-tagging an Indian lifeline

Although the Modi government has technically only withdrawn a withholding order on the latest rail fare hike, which was factored in by the former UPA-II regime but postponed because of the general elections, there are reasons for the common man to feel let down. A steep increase of 14.2 per cent in passenger fares and 6.5 per cent in freight charges at a time when prices of staple food items such as onions and potatoes are already beyond control is something that is not likely to sit comfortably with the sprawling middle and lower middle classes that voted Narendra Modi to power. Even though the rail minister and the finance minister have conveyed their sympathies with the larger public that’s writhing under a double whammy of weak monsoon and high inflation, this bitter pill of lifting subsidies and upping the fares to plug gaping holes in revenue could work only if it’s matched with corresponding drives to weed out corruption from this ailing sector. With civil war in Iraq affecting global crude oil prices, a ripple effect is already being felt in Asian economies, and rail fare hike is but natural given the tectonic shakes that are happening worldwide. Even though the government is ready to ‘review’ the price hike, which it would do in the rail budget due in July, India must be ready to come to terms with more market-friendly prices so that the flagging railway sector manages to earn Rs 8,000 crore this financial year and implement reforms that are long overdue.    

     Despite the aim being to be able to cure Indian Railways’ weak finances, what the new government must not forget is that this mode of transportation still remains the most relied upon and most used by millions of Indians commuting for work and leisure. Preference for trains still outnumbers those who opt for cheap and easy flying despite slashed air tickets and airlines companies fighting tooth and nail to outcompete each other and attract customers. Though it has made great inroads, the aam aadmi still travels by train to work, particularly in cities like Mumbai and Kolkata. Although the price hike seems irreversible under present circumstances, what can be done however is providing value for money and drastically improved services by the railways. While cheerleaders of divestment want the railways to be privatised, citing governmental apathy and serial negligence, high accident rates and appalling lack of quality service, the government has a duty to revive the below par railways, get rid of all the corrupt contractors and middlemen making money at the expense of passengers, as well as strictly monitor all the appointments and postings of the officials to the various board. Periodic audits, financial and performance-wise, could restore the lost glory of this colonial legacy that has lost its sheen but remains a national lifeline.   
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