India’s railways minister forced to resign as politics once again derails sensible policy

NEW DELHI — India’s railways minister Dinesh Trivedi resigned on March 18 under pressure from his own Trinamool Congress (TMC) party. TMC, which is a key member of the ruling Unite Progressive Alliance (UPA), was upset with Trivedi for going against the party’s pro-poor policies, proposing to increase fares in his March 14 railway budget.

Trivedi and the TMC party chief Mamata Banerjee have been at odds over policy issues. Trivedi was eventually forced to resign after Banerjee threatened to withdraw her party’s support for the government if the railway minister was not removed from his post.

“If I hadn’t resigned, the government would have fallen. The moment I realised this, I put in my papers because I did not want the country to go for an early election over this issue,” Trivedi told The Indian Express newspaper on March 20 when his successor, Mukul Roy, took over as the new railway minister.

The appointment of Roy, previously a junior minister in the shipping department, is one of TMC’s key demands aside from rolling back the fare hike introduced by Trivedi.

Under the new fare structure proposed by the departing minister, a second-class fare on the train between the capital, New Delhi and the financial hub, Mumbai, about 1,400km apart, was raised by 21% to 260 rupees (US$5). A first-class fare on the air-conditioned Rajdhani Express was increased by 14% to 3,445 rupees.

The fare increase will add about 40 billion rupees in revenue — out of the total 1.33 trillion rupees that the government expects to take in transportation receipts in the 2012-13 fiscal year.

The railways are still seen by many in India as a public service provided by the state for the “aam aadmi”, the “common man”, ferrying poor migrants who have yet to benefit from India’s economic growth.

“We are fighting for the ordinary class fares. It is not about Rajdhani class [used by India’s elite],” Banerjee told local news channel NDTV on March 20.

Banerjee’s TMC political platform is built on measures such as subsidised rail fares. TMC was afraid that the fare hike could alienate its core constituency — the poor.

Fares were last raised in 2004. But the refusal by successive ministers to increase passenger fares has strained the ministry’s finances, sapping its capacity to modernise India’s railway network, 80% of which was built before the country’s independence from Britain in 1947.

“The eight months that I was in office, railways [ministry] did not have a penny for any project,” Trivedi told local media on March 20.

The Indian railway system is plagued by delays, overcrowding and accidents. Ten lives were lost in a railway accident at an unmanned crossing in Uttar Pradesh the day Roy became the new railway minister.

Justifying his decision to increase fares, Trivedi told parliamentarians when tabling the railway budget that he had to “bite the bullet” and make radical changes with a “focus on safety … to meet the aspirations of this great country in the next decade”.

The ensuing political storm over the fare hike underscored the difficulty the Indian government faces in effecting policy change.  TMC last year blocked one of the government’s biggest economic reform initiatives: to liberalise its retail sector and open it to foreign investors.

The railway budget is now in the hands of parliament. It remains to be seen whether the ruling Congress party possesses the political will to push it through.


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