Banerjee was a former railway minister
THE INDIAN government today scrapped plans to hike most rail fares, underscoring the Congress-led coalition’s difficulties in implementing tough policy decisions.
“I intend to give relief to the already burdened common man,” the new Railway Minister Mukul Roy told parliament after his predecessor Dinesh Trivedi resigned on Sunday (March 18) over the controversial issue.
Trivedi had announced the increases in rail fares, a touchstone issue among millions of Indians, only last week but the proposed rises triggered fury from his populist Trinamool Congress party, which is part of the ruling coalition.
The dilapidated railways, still the main form of long-distance travel in India despite fierce competition from airlines, run thousands of passenger and freight trains and carry millions of people daily.
Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has suffered a series of embarrassing policy setbacks in recent months as his fractious coalition government struggles to push through its liberalisation agenda.
The withdrawal of major reforms to the retail sector, slowing economic growth and a series of corruption scandals have beset Singh during his second term in office.
The 79-year-old prime minister has been criticised as indecisive and the Congress party fared poorly in recent state elections.
Mamata Banerjee, leader of the regional Trinamool Congress party, led outrage against the rail price hikes - the first in nearly a decade - saying that they were a deliberate “anti-poor” policy.
Banerjee, a firebrand former railway minister who is chief minister of West Bengal state, has become a thorn in the side of the government after she also forced the reversal of retail reforms in December.
Roy told a noisy parliament that the rail price rises would not be implemented except in the highest class of travel used by wealthier Indians.
The proposed modest nationwide hikes would have included the 860-mile (1,390-kilometre) Mumbai-Delhi fare rising by only 28 rupees (55 cents) for bottom-rung second-class customers.
Trivedi had argued that the ticket price rises were necessary to improve safety standards on the crumbling British colonial-era railway network, which carries millions of people every day.
In his budget, he had pledged to spend a record 601 billion rupees ($12bn/£7.59bn) in the financial year 2012-13 on improving safety and tracks, building new lines and introducing new trains.
After the U-turn on the fares hike, it was uncertain whether the planned upgrade would still take place.
Trade unions were split on the government’s latest move, with some backing increased fares as the only way to fund improvements to the vast network.
“This is a big blunder. The fare increase was needed,” said Shiva Gopal Mishra, of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF), which has 1.26 million members.
“The rise was a positive step as the Indian railway needs more money for its survival. We do not support the rollback in any form,” he told reporters.
India’s train system has a notoriously bad accident record, with a recent official report revealing almost 15,000 people are killed a year crossing rail tracks - a figure the government described as a “massacre”.
Derailments, collisions and other accidents are also common.
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