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UPA cites lofty ideals, makes people pay

Safe and clean railways. This is going to be the motto of the UPA government for the rest of its tenure. With the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for next year, the ruling Congress is keen to use the time it has to project an image of a reformist.

Safety and cleanliness on the Indian Railways are two issues that affect the general public the most and it is to the general public the Congress wants to direct its attention ahead of the elections. But for some lofty aims some hard decisions have to be taken. To provide safe and clean railways, one needs money, and for that the only way, the Congress thought, was to raise rail fares across all classes, right from sleeper class to first AC.

It now has a difficult task to balance two contradictions – on the one hand, it wants to paint a picture of a party concerned about the common needs of a common man, but on the other, it is hurting the daily budget of the very same aam aadmi who is already grappling with various prices hikes including those of essential commodities, petrol, diesel and LPG.

How it does it will be seen in Parliament next month when the Rail Budget will be presented. As for now it says the fare hike, effective from midnight of 21 January, is necessary for the railways to stay afloat.

No revision in basic fares for the past 10 years has not only affected passenger safety and amenity but also essential replacement, operation and maintenance activities. The railways is also in a desperate need for funds for projects such as dedicated freight corridors and the Mumbai elevated rail corridor plan, it says.

But the focus will be on safe and clean railways. A major portion of Rs 1,200 crore, which the railways will earn till 31 March through the hike, will be spent on security and safety of passengers and rail property.

While part of the amount will be spent on a special cleanliness drive for which 100 railway stations have been short listed. However, the moot questions still remain: Why the hike one-and-a-half month before the presentation of the rail budget on 26 February? And was there no other way to raise finances for the safety and cleanliness of the railways? It seems, the Congress is hard-pressed for time and resources. All these past eight years it has been in the government it could not look at this option as it was held hostage to the compulsions of coalition politics.

First, it was RJD’s Lalu Prasad as Railway Minister who did not raise fares as a populist measure, and then it was Trinamool’s Mamata Bannerjee who, in fact, went to the extent of removing her rail minister Dinesh Trivedi when he hiked fares across the board. She replaced Trivedi with Mukul Roy and got the fares rolled back except for the first class and AC sections.

Now with the railways portfolio within the party, the Congress has ruled out a roll back. The hike is surely going to hurt the labour class and the daily commuters, but there is also an imperative that the passengers need better amenities and hygiene. The general feeling is that the present rail services are horrible that turn the journey into an agonizing experience.

If the railways can provide a good traveling experience, people do not mind paying more. (IFS)
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