Accustomed to doling out freebies and largesses at the expense of public exchequer for their own partisan gains, most of the country’s politicians play to the gallery and incite people against any sane attempt made by the government towards course correction. It is sad that petty politicians succeed in playing perilous games, inflicting severe blows to the health of nation’s iconic lifeline that its railways signifies. The orchestrated crescendo of protests against the 14% rail passenger fare hike is patently misconceived, also mischievous. Strangely, the rail minister has been inexplicably apologetic, and has succumbed to the pressure to partially roll back the fare hike, signalling that the government can be pushed around. Indian Railways (IR) incurs an annual loss of R30,000 crore on its passenger business; it doesn’t even put out a white paper to explain the debilitating effect of such an untenable case to the people. One former rail minister doesn’t question the fare increase; he would have liked it announced in the ensuing Rail Budget. Rail passenger fare or freight charge is no tax, it reflects only a price of service that IR provides; it needs no Parliament approval. Further, the pertinent issue is why a separate Rail Budget at all; in the current context, a Rail Budget is an anachronism and irrelevant—it needs to be dispensed with straightaway.
Of late, it has been IR’s ill-luck that it has been asked by regional politicos, catapulted to the role of presiding deities in Rail Bhavan, to deliver with its arms firmly tied. With maniac obduracy, these satraps—obsessed with populism, to nurture their narrow, partisan interests—permitted no increase in lower class passenger fares for a decade. They couldn’t care that, devoid of essential infusion of capital and technology for its sustenance and development, the system would decay. The second-class fare, largely responsible for loss-making, remained ludicrously low at 15.8 paise per km in 2010-11, and suburban travel still lower, at 12 paise per km. In comparison, the bus fare on state transport services averaged 62 paise per km. The second-class rail fares moved from 100 in 1993 to 106 in 2011 vis-à-vis WPI from 100 to 295. The PPP-adjusted rail passenger fare-box yield (2010) in India is equivalent of $0.006 compared to $0.024 in China, $0.052 in Russia, $0.126 in Germany, and $0.19 in Japan. Just to break-even, rail fare increase required is of the order of 400% for ordinary sleeper