Fair hike?

Today, India’s railways minister hiked passenger fares fourteen percent and freight fares six-and-a-half percent. Protests, predictably, are already underway, and will continue, I would think, into next week. The reason why is clear enough to discern—travel by rail remains one of the cheapest, most effective, if not quite efficient, means by which India’s still majority poor, rural, and underemployed travel for work or pleasure. Any hike in fares directly impacts this constituency more than any other.  

A couple years back, another railways minister, Dinesh Trivedi, tried this gambit and lost his job. This time, however, would appear to be different, much to the excitement of Modi supporters. Finally, a prime minister who just might make good on his commitment to improving infrastructure and services and rationalizing the bureaucracies that manage them. 

I’m somewhat ambivalent, I must admit. I’ve traveled on India’s railways a few times, once taking forty-plus hours to get from Jamshedpur, in the northeast, to Bangalore. They’re slow and rickety, all right. Worse, they’re dangerous, in myriad ways, as this New York Times attests. Obviously, they’re in dire need of improvement, which takes money, of course, and, hence, the new fares. 

Two sets of questions come to mind: First, is there any guarantee that increased revenues will, in fact, be put to use repairing and upgrading the existing network? That’s a big question in a country whose politicians and bureaucrats have made so many promises and fulfilled so few of them going back to independence, in 1947, all the while enriching themselves at great cost to nation and society. Yet again Indians, and especially the poor, are being asked to put their faith in government, when the results to date have been less than stellar. Will this time be different? 

Second, and perhaps more important in the short-term, what policies will Modi consider in bringing up wages, formalizing labor, and improving working conditions, overall, as a way to make this fare hike palatable? The worry—a very real one, I think, again, if the past is any indication—is whether government will continue the trend of increasing daily costs, while doing little to nothing in the way of improving daily life.

On both counts, it's wait-and-see time all over again.