Why they didn't hike fares for 10 yrs
Even as all other prices - barring that of mobile phones and existing technology - have risen, politics has kept train fares intact, and the railways bleeding. Charu Sudan Kasturi reports.delhi Updated: Jan 10, 2013 00:04 IST
In February 2009 as he delivered his last railway budget, rail minister Lalu Prasad slashed already low ticket prices, calling himself a "friend of the people."
His successor Mamata Banerjee followed in his footsteps. "I am the common man, and can never hurt the common man," she instead asserted, typically mixing up gender and grammar in her earthy and effective oratorical style.
And when Dinesh Trivedi, Banerjee's appointee as rail minister, announced a rail hike in February last year, she sacked him, replacing him with confidante Mukul Roy, who immediately rolled back the fare increase.
Since the last rail fare hike in 2002, and now, four rail ministers have steadfastly refused to increase the cost of rail travel, all insisting that they were benefactors of the "aam aadmi" that now has a political party named after him. Meanwhile, the railways bled over Rs. 10,000 crore a year in losses that the common man - the taxpayer - was in any case paying for.
These rail ministers belonged to different parties, often at loggerheads with each other.
But they share the common flexibility that smaller allies in a multi-party coalition enjoy - the opportunity to reap the larger political benefits of avoiding economic decisions that could hurt politically, but are inevitable and necessary in the long run in a market economy.
Congressman Pawan Kumar Bansal, who announced the fare hike on Wednesday, affecting millions across India, is the first rail minister belonging to the main political party heading a ruling coalition, since the BJP came to power in 1998.
Between 2002 and now, an average Indian's education expenses, food bill, house rent and air fare costs have all at least doubled, pushed up by the laws of economics and steady inflation.
But politics - and not economics - have determined the fare the railways charge the 24 million passengers who use their services daily.
Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party and Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) held the railways portfolio during the BJP-led NDA's six-year tenure between 1998 and 2004.
Kumar was the minister who last hiked rail fares, in February 2002, but he kept the fares constant in 2003 - months ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
Lalu Prasad, rail minister through UPA-1, and Banerjee and Roy in UPA-2, also refused to hike fares, while continuing the tradition of increasing trains, especially to their home states. These moves have connected more people, without any apparent extra financial burden on them.
But they have also brought the railways to a financial status that in the private sector would be akin to bankruptcy.