Railway minister Suresh Prabhu’s decision to steer clear of announcing any hike in freight and passengers fares has revived an earlier debate – should such announcements be made outside of the rail budget?
This much is clear: Given the precarious state of rail finances, a decision to raise passenger and freight rates will come sooner than later. So what stopped the railways minister from biting the bullet on Thursday? Perhaps the decision was to avoid fuelling a volatile situation in which the ruling BJP is being cornered over the JNU controversy and Dalit scholar suicide.
Prabhu’s stewardship of the railways ministry has started a trend where revisions of fares not only come outside of the rail budget, but also indirectly.
Shortly after assuming office, the Narendra Modi government affected a 14.20% hike in passenger fares. In subsequent months, the fares have continued to come through various announcements, including a hike in platform tickets and minimum travel charges, a stiff raise in cancellation charges, the upward revision of tatkal charges, running special trains on tatkal rates and so on. According to the Congress, the principal Opposition party, the NDA has hiked passenger fares by as much as 18% in the last 20 months.
The railways minister maintained that the budget presentation is an exercise in policy pronouncements, unlinked with operational decisions such as fare or freight hikes. But if the minister can announce proposals to serve milk and baby food for children, what stopped him from being upfront about fare hikes in his budget speech, an official asks.
Rail finances are in dire straits. This year’s operating ratio – paisa spent against every rupee earned which determines the financial health of the organisation – has been projected at 90%, but experts and Opposition leaders say the figure could actually touch 97% by the end of March. This year’s losses in revenue are estimated at a whopping Rs 17,000 crore.
Be sure about this – train passengers may have been spared from shelling out more now, but the increase will come. Possibly, after the election process gets over in the five states where polls are scheduled this year, in which the BJP is hoping to make large gains.