The government on Tuesday got its first bitter taste of coalition politics as pressure from its oldest ally, Shiv Sena, and also the BJP’s own state unit in poll-bound Maharashtra forced it to partially roll back a proposed increase in the fares of the suburban train service announced last Friday.
In what was reminiscent of the days of the UPA government, a group of nine MPs from the Shiv Sena and BJP and RPI MP Ramdas Athavale visited Railways Minister Sadananda Gowda at Rail Bhawan in the morning to protest the fare hike. With his party deciding to relent under pressure — Sena chief Uddhav Thackery had spoken to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and also BJP president Rajnath Singh — Gowda had no choice but to give the green signal for a rollback in the afternoon.
Now the Monthly Season Ticket of suburban trains across India will see a flat increase of just 14.2 per cent, much like the rest of the classes decided last Friday, instead of an increase through a computed formula that was causing a 100 per cent hike for daily commuters. There will be no increase for travel up to first 80 km in second class for non-passholders.
As in the higher classes, the hike is for 10 per cent, while the remaining 4.2 per cent is on account of a Fuel Adjustment Component. For local trains, this change will come into effect from June 28, while for the rest of the classes the changed fares are applicable from Wednesday.
Sources said Gowda along with senior railway officials had tried to work out a different formula to pacify the allies that had meant delayed collection of the differential amount from the passengers. But the Shiv Sena and the BJP state unit reasoned that since all other classes had a 14.2 per cent hike, it would be easier for them to explain to the people if that number was applied to the suburban season tickets as well.
The Railway brass had dug its heels in its resistance to a rollback. It is learnt that the top officials had explained to the minister — and the minister in turn to the protesting MPs — that without the fare hike the suburban service would be difficult to run efficiently, which would adversely impact the passengers. Nearly eight million passengers use the train service daily in Mumbai, known as the lifeline of the mega-city.
The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance is widely expected to form the next government in Maharashtra, which goes to polls in December. The hike in the suburban train fares was threatening to give Congress there the much-needed boost, the Shiv Sena MPs reasoned.
Railways had expected to mop up Rs 902 crore from the proposed increase in suburban tickets during this financial year. That figure now comes down to less than Rs 300 crore. Railways generally earns around Rs 2,000 crore from suburban services in a year, which is just about five per cent of its total earnings from the passenger segment.