The ministry of railways is considering increasing the fares of the lower berths in railway compartments, by 50 to 100 rupees.
The move, if implemented, will be driven towards securing seats for the senior citizens, at nominally higher fares. Nominally? That seems to be the bone of contention here.
Gone are the days, as it seems, when future relations or interim kinship were forged upon the railways. Whether in a discourse of imperial comfort, or one of native camaraderie, travelling in trains was once considered an exercise in Indian hospitality and community-living.
The ministry of railways has recently come under criticism for using the railways as a “business opportunity”.
Stringent opposition has come from the Pune Railways Travelers Association. As it appears, an increase in the fare approximately worth the price of half a kilogram of Bengal gram for a 500 km long journey, or upwards, has not gone down well with the passengers. The proposed hike is seen as anything but “nominal”.
To put things into an economic perspective, the proposed reservation of seats for senior citizens or pregnant women is roughly 15 per cent of the total lower berth seats. The total number of passenger trains running in India each day is about 13,000.
The longest of trains in India can have up to 24 bogeys, and each of those bogeys has 72 seats, with a maximum of 24 lower berths.
Not all of these are long-distance trains, however for the sake of argument we may consider that all of these may be suitably used as a business opportunity. The longest of trains in India can have up to 24 bogeys, and each of those bogeys has 72 seats, with a maximum of 24 lower berths.
The figures lead to an estimated count of 170 million reserved lower berth seats each year – or those seats that may be subject to a fare hike. If each seat were to cost Rs 100 more than the current fare, it will make an additional revenue of Rs 1,700 crore for the Railways. How much good will that really serve?
In February, earlier this year, the Union Budget allocated a corpus of Rs 20,000 crores to the Rashtriya Rail Sanrakhsha Kosh (RRSK). Out of that, the finance ministry volunteered to provide Rs 15,000 crore annually, with Rs 5,000 crore coming out of the surplus of the Railways – in an aggregate budget of one lakh crores to be spent over the next five years on accident prevention measures, such as renewing tracks, signals and unmanned level crossings.
Out of the proposed 5,000 crores of surplus that the Railways is supposed to garner over the current year, the reservation of lower berths can only lead to one-third of the accretion. And that too is a very utopic figure, considering not all lower berths in all trains may be occupied on each day of the year, or hiked by Rs 100 each.
In order to meet the possible deficit of nearly Rs 3,500 crore, the Railways has started considering enforcing a safety-cess on train tickets.
However, the lower berth is also that tool which has often enabled railway passengers to trade their seats for an ounce of blessings. Women, children, elders, or just an endeared stranger has often had a reprieve from climbing to the searing upper berth – especially during the brunt of Indian summers.
Apart from the requisite surplus that the railways must accumulate by the end of the year, the proposed fare-hikes may also come to reflect public sentiments and class consciousness.
Whether the hikes are a consequence of the growing streak of solipsism in railway journeys, or vice versa, putting a price-tag on the lower-berth will certainly deprive the last vestiges of generosity that community-travelling has had to offer.