ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Grand Narratives of the Budget

The Lopsided Priorities of Indian Railways

In a bid to introduce point to point high speed rail systems the Indian Railways seems to have forgotten its core constituency. If the Indian Railways fails to provide inexpensive travel to all, it would be deemed as a violation of the constitutional guarantee of travelling freely across the country. 

There has been a slow but steady shift in the tone and tenor of railway budgets over the years. What once used to be a tedious exercise in accounting and resource allocation has slowly morphed into an exercise in selling fantasies with dollops of righteous indignation. The signs were particularly evident in 2012. News-anchors, talking heads, and journalists indignantly amplified then railway minister Dinesh Trivedi’s claim that railway fares had to be hiked because they had been kept unchanged for nine years.

However this is by and large, a half-truth. It is true that base fares did not go up for nine years but there is a world of difference between base fares and the actual price of a ticket. The actual price of a ticket is the sum of base fares and various surcharges and fees and given this math, ticket prices have been steadily going up, even in those nine years. Yet the media staged the fare-hike controversy as a tragedy: Trivedi, playing the champion of fiscal discipline, martyred by his capricious and vindictive boss, Mamata Banerjee.  

What about the constitutional guarantee of free movement?

Going against the prevailing wisdom, let me declare outright that the rail budget is an exercise in politics. This is because railways constitute the infrastructure for the fundamental right of all citizens to move freely throughout the country. It is meaningless and dishonest to claim that all citizens have the right to move freely, if citizens cannot access, for reasons of physical or economic constraint, the infrastructure that will ferry them from one place to another. Any measure that is an impediment to inexpensive travel is nothing less than the failure of the state to safeguard a constitutional guarantee. When Mamata Banerjee protested against Trivedi’s budget, she may have been acting capriciously, scoring brownie points and indulging in all the “populism” that the media and the middle class accuses her of, but, unknowingly perhaps, she was also expressing a concern about a constitutional guarantee whose failure rarely troubles the media.

What is the level and quality of service that Indian Railways provides to citizens, especially the rural poor who travel long distances to become informal labour on brick kilns, construction sites, farms and in urban households as domestic help? Consider the case of Kitham, a typical small town in Uttar Pradesh about 25 kms from Agra Cantonment and 30 kms from Mathura. Every day nearly 100 trains zip past Kitham on the New Delhi-Agra route, yet if someone from Kitham would like to take a train to Delhi, she will find that she has the splendid choice of either a daily train (Agra – Old Delhi Passenger) which travels at the breakneck speed of 26 km/h, when it is not late which it usually is, by more than an hour, or a local train which does not run on Sundays.

Things become considerably worse as one looks at other parts of the country, where the railway network is less dense. Consider the pilgrimage city of Shirdi in Maharashtra: yet again there is only one daily train connecting Shirdi to Mumbai, a passenger train whose average speed is 40 km/h. Or consider the district headquarters of Dantewada and Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh – there is no railway line connecting these towns to Raipur, the state capital, even as goods trains, running on a dedicated track, ferry minerals out from this area to Vishakhapatnam. The same pattern holds for other mineral-rich areas such as Sundergarh in north Odisha.

This is not to suggest that the abysmal quality of service and apathy is reserved exclusively for rural denizens. A person wishing to go from Bangalore to Hyderabad will find an air conditioned sleeper bus (Volvo) to be faster than the fastest train on the sector (Yeswantpur Sampark Kranti) and the cost will be roughly the same as that of a 3-tier AC train ticket. However, considering that perhaps 80% of the stations on the railway network are like Kitham and that a much larger number of places are not even served by a railway line, it is clear that the railways have little to do with the mobility needs of the vast majority of Indian citizens. The rural population has no choice but to make do with the patchy and poor road connectivity, while they watch Garib Raths, Rajdhanis, Shatabdis, Durontos, Sampark Krantis indifferently whizzing past.

The irony of rising ticket prices

Many in the media rue the supine populism of railway ministers who shirk away from increasing fares. Yet ticket prices, which are after all what people care about, have been steadily going up by various sleights of hand. Consider the surcharge levied for traveling by a “superfast” train - seems reasonable on the face of it until one realises that the designation of “superfast” is itself something of a joke. Earlier, a train had to have an average speed of at least 60 km/h to be designated “superfast,” for which excess fare is charged as superfast surcharge. Somewhere in the 1990s, the cut-off speed was brought down to 55 km/h – no doubt to increase the number of trains on which the surcharge could be levied. The demand to rationalise this threshold upwards to at least 60 km/h has gone unheeded for close to a decade, and in 2014 even 60 km/h does not seem “superfast.”

The Tatkal scheme, introduced in 1997, was and remains a way to increase the average price of a reserved seat/berth by charging a premium for tatkal berths – the premium for sleeper class berths was Rs. 50 per berth initially. In 2004 – i.e., in those very nine years when rail fares were supposedly held flat - the number of AC seats/berths earmarked for Tatkal was increased by 11 times while that for non-AC seats/berths increased by six times . At the same time, the Tatkal premium was revised upwards to Rs 150 for peak season and Rs 75 for the rest of the year for sleeper class berths. This was a comprehensive and major hike in prices, but the media in general failed to pick up on this, lulled by the false equation between base fare and actual price. Throughout the last 10 years, IR has tweaked the Tatkal scheme – its reservation period, the percentage of total berths earmarked, the premium to be levied and so increased ticket prices. The latest fare hike of 14.2% comes on the back of all these escalations-on-the-sly.

A CAG report  of 2013 reveals that iron ore mining companies alone owe Railways an estimated sum of about Rs 19,000 crores. To put it in perspective, the latest round of fare hikes will yield the Railways an additional Rs. 8,000 crores. In other words, attempts to recover even half the amount owed from just iron ore mining companies would have obviated the escalation in fares. Within a day of the hike being announced, irate metropolitan passengers managed to get the hike rolled back for local trains. That local train tickets were considerably cheaper than mail/express tickets for the same distance and class even after the hike was of no consequence to either the protesting passengers or the relenting government.

Misplaced priorities

The rail budget is not an exercise in balancing costs with revenues, but a deeply political exercise. And the Railways have largely lost the plot. Bedazzled with “premium” trains like Rajdhanis and Durontos, and now hooked to the expensive and irresponsible fad of a bullet train (each train to cost up to 60,000 crore rupees or about 7.5 times the money raised from the latest, across the board fare-hike), the Railways have forgotten that their primary constituency are those who can only dream of one day traveling in an AC compartment. Serving this vast and geographically distributed constituency is a different order of infrastructural challenge than running ever more point-to-point high-speed trains. At the level of strategy, top managers frequently position Railways as competing with low-cost airlines, a horizon too narrow to cater to the mobility needs of the masses. Politicians like D Raja, Nitish Kumar, Laloo Yadav, Mayawati, who still retain some sense of how most Indians live, have criticised the budget for its anti-poor tilt and they are quite right. The issue is not just about fiscal prudence, but also, and far more importantly, about the evisceration of the fundamental right to movement for most Indians.

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