Train fares have finally been hiked, after almost a decade. The key public sector organisation, which had been gasping for breath under some extremely populist politicians who wanted to milk it to meet their own selfish aims instead of the general welfare, has seen a welcome relief. The move is a bold one for we had seen a railway minister perishing under his party's pressure for wanting to take the realistic way and not bow before mindless populism that was killing the railways.
But, as usual, opposition parties irrespective of political leanings started criticising the government for hiking train fares. The point is: Politicians belonging to these parties that have little connection with the reality are actually barking up the wrong tree by opposing the decision to increase train fares.
They have been playing the same old record of the government ignoring the poor people's interest. Why don't they understand the economic viability of these types of decisions and put up worthy counter logics? I suspect they lack the required knowledge.
The hike was so much overdue that the eventual increase after a long gap of 10 years is not going to bail out the railways from its continuing financial woes. Had the government raised the price at regular intervals, then the decision would have been more effective. But as we see in case of fuel prices, lack of a sound policy on sensitive popular issues and just banking on populist strategies have made economics a subject of great mockery in this country. Bad economics has always been good politics for us till the time when our back touches the wall.
The question that the opposition should ask: "Will this hike be worth for the common man in terms of service, safety, passengers' security and all other facilities that they deserve while travelling in the railways?"
Is this move, just a month or two ahead of the Budget, a desperate attempt to narrow the fiscal deficit and also to woo the middle-class who, in total contradiction to what the opposition feels, strongly believe that train fares needed a rise if they really expect a superior service from the railways. Leaders like Mamata Banerjee had actually imposed their selfish views on the commoners and never really reflected their concern.
They should have also asked that if the railways still fall short of overcoming its financial constraints, then why not it concentrates on reducing wasteful expenditures and scrap non-viable projects that have been planned only to gain electoral gains. The railways earn the majority of its revenue from freight transport and there is a limit beyond which it can not increase the freight fare owing to economic viability.
The anti-hike quarters have been saying: This is a move that will hurt the common man, particularly the poor. Why don't these people shout with the same voice when populist governments declare DA for state employees or when the poor farmer doesn't get the price worth for their products and commit suicide?
A simplistic slogan on poverty and poor is easier to make for our ill-equipped politicians but that derails the bigger and serious projects like national development. If the railways, a key sector to effect a uniform national development, is misused and not allowed to grow in terms of infrastructure and human resources, then there is little point.
The added revenue garnered from an increased fare should be utilised to expand the railways' infrastructure so that more and more remote parts of the country are brought closer, hence facilitating the marginalised and poor. No wisdom lies in viewing the rise in fare as a move to corner the poor. The long-term benefit is the key concern. Is the government eyeing that? That is the million-dollar question.
Mismanagement and excessive expenditure, projects and trains not financially viable and the tendency to travel without tickets are some of the areas which the government needs to address more, besides the regular concerns like safety, service and maintenance. The common man have welcomed the decision to hike the fare, thinking it would improve the service conditions. If that is not met, the whole purpose will be defeated.
As an emerging big economy, the day is not far when the country will require high-speed trains like some of the developed nations and a total overhauling of the railways will be asked for. We need to be ready for the occasion so that our economic progress does not get hampered.
Will our 'pro-people' politicians ever visualise the future?