Friday, March 16, 2012

The beast of burden (Railways) demolished by the burden of the …..

Mamata Banerjee is making a complete joke out of governance. Unable to run her own government with any degree of sanity, her burden on the nation is now becoming a matter of concern. What otherwise would explain the drama that followed after Dinesh Trivedi presented the Railway budget a couple of days back? Mamata is now behaving like a man-eater – ready to devour anyone who comes in the way of her blinded vision….

The Railway fares haven’t been increased for 9 years or more. In the meantime, the people who the Railways are supposed to serve have seen their incomes rise by an average of nearly four times (15% per annum on average – doubling in five years). This is “nominal” income – unadjusted for inflation. But then we are also talking about Railway fares on an unadjusted basis. After all we pay for Railway prices on “current market prices” basis rather on “fixed prices” basis. All that Mamata has protested about is the fare hike. She’s not asked one question; not made on comment on the other aspects of the budget. Is pricing all that she is concerned about?

Mamata lives in a world of make-believe. In her world, any increase in cost of utilities is anti-people. However, having more people die due to accidents; having horrible toilets that stink more than even our politics; having crowds worse than anywhere else in the world....these are all acceptable to Mamata. She may want to ask herself what the people want. Would they be willing to pay a little more for a little more comfort? If she did a survey, she would find that most people would say a resounding “yes”.

Since ticket prices haven’t been rising, there has been no addition to Railway capacity. Hardly any new tracks are being laid. Hardly any new railway stock being added. More and more people are getting stuffed into existing coaches. In the meanwhile, the population has increased some 20% or more in the last decade; but there is no corresponding increase in the Railways’ carrying capacity. Not surprising then the boom that is being seen in the private tourist buses business. What about prices in that sector? Obviously, they’ve soared as prices of fuel, the tolls, and the cost of maintenance and spares have increased. This particular sector has managed to continuously upgrading too. The latest story yesterday about the Tatas launching new upgraded and upscale Volvo-like buses suggests a consumer preference for comfortable AC travel. Everyone has got the message – but Mamata hasn’t.

There was some cynical speculation yesterday that all this drama was pre-scripted. That Dinesh Trivedi wouldn’t have had the guts to present a budget without at least a hint of an approval from his boss. That Mamata has taken the high ground by protesting the price hike, but she will allow most of it to eventually go through. This is a very cynical view – and if it is true, then it shows just how little Mamata cares for the business of governance. Sacrificing a minister as part of a political strategy of drama – with the insouciant attitude that she dons – must be a low point even for Indian politics.

Recent developments on the political side really point to a growing crisis in India. We have the clear spectre of the states becoming stronger – UP, Goa and Manipur being the most recent cases – and at the same time the Center becoming weaker. This is not to do with a UPA or an NDA rule at the Center. Just as much as the Congress has been shaken to its bones in the recent polls, so has the BJP. If there were an NDA government at the center, it too would face a similar situation. With ever more powerful regional parties, the coalition at the Center becomes vulnerable to every tug and pull that the regional fiefs exert. What option does the Congress have in the present situation? Sacrifice the government for what has to be seen as just another day in its life or make the compromise – one more time?

The Railways budget is just one more incident of what has been going on for long. FDI in multi-brand retail, NCTC, the Lokpal fiasco, the reforms in the banking and insurance sector…..all of these have been victims of the stone-age attitudes of some of the UPA’s allies. The main opposition – the BJP – needs to play no role at the Center at all. It just needs to sit with folded hands and enjoy the action unfold! But the BJP needs to read the writing on the wall. Why was it not rewarded by the voters in the recent polls? Maybe voters expect it to be more pro-development and support the Center on the basis of its own principles on the economy – rather than oppose for the sake of opposing? The BJP has every right to oppose the communal violence bill for it is at the core of its political ideology – and its opposition would be a principled stand on the subject. But its opposition to economic reforms – a subject it believes in as much as the Congress does – is not something that is acceptable to the voters. The BJP learnt this lesson first in 2009, when the party’s opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal ran afoul with voter expectations. Is the party not doing the same now?

We forget one important thing in this whole debate. The National Income of this country rises some 15-17% every single year in nominal terms. Farmer incomes have been rising regularly because of serial increases in MSPs for various goods. The subsidies on farm inputs continue to rise too. Both together give much more money in the hands of the farmers. Non-farm incomes have also been rising in the rural areas thanks to NREGA and the overall economic growth in states like UP, Bihar and Orissa. Urban salaried workers are protected by annual increments. Businessmen see their profits increasing in the same manner. The only segment squeezed out of the economic growth is the urban un-organized sector workers – the lacs of drivers, maids, watchmen, dhobis etc – who are unable to extract any real increases in their earnings from their ever-more-stingy customers. The bulk of the Indians can afford an annual price increase in rail prices. Provided they are given a more comfortable ride and a safer one at that.

The real truth is that the UPA has to see Mamata in her eyes and challenge her. It has to find another formula for itself. If that means sealing a formal or informal arrangement with the SP and the BSP, then so be it. If that means sacrificing its own plans for UP in the short term, so be it. The Congress has to decide – does it want to run the government at the center or develop its party in UP. At this juncture, both are simply not possible…..

No comments:

Post a Comment