Since this week, the ministry of railways has been 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.
Indian cinema and its numerous songs are testimonies to the great potential of the Indian Railways of bringing together people, either in love or social cohesion.
The nostalgia of a transitory railway-bonds
Take the Kishore Kumar-starrer song, "Cheel cheel chillake kajri sunaye" ("Every kite shrieks to strain out a kajri"), from the film Half Ticket. The song is features a mohalla-sequence inside a second class compartment, which doubles up as a microcosmic India.
Businessmen, godmen, family-men, and all sorts of other species of passengers are found in the railways, including the avian voices that Kumar mimes, all travelling what seems to be shared destination. Or who could forget the song from The Burning Train, "Pal do pal ka saath hamara, pal do pal ke yaara e hain (We are comrades for a moment or two, momentary are all our bonds here)", where the lyrics themselves bear forth the fleeting yet treasured bonhomie that the train journey brought to people from a plethora of classes.
Gradually, the trend of the railway-setting - an indomitable India-in-transit - has declined in cinema. Nowadays, there are more individuals or individualistic protagonists that appear to be taking the train journeys, if at all the railways happen to feature as a character in contemporary Indian cinema or literature.
Possibly, the dynamic ticket-pricing that the Indian Railways introduced a few years ago, and other fare-hikes on the anvil, have had a crucial role to play in the way the quotidian railway narratives of India's passengers are represented today - or not represented at all.
An economics of the lower berths
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 500km 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.
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?
The deficit of 3,500 crore
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.
Tejas at the end of the tunnel
On May 22, the uber-fast Tejas Express will have its first run from Mumbai to Goa.
With amenities such as bio-vacuum toilets, call bells, LED TVs, coffee and tea vending machines, and most importantly travelling at 200 km/hr, Tejas Express promises to be a mammoth padding of salt for passengers wounded by the proposed hike in railway fares.
Tejas is certainly a move towards a mode of travelling determined by etiquettes of air-travel.
More than a be-served economy of travel, Tejas proposes to be a self-service economy, with modern equipment to facilitate the same.
The new train might just be a much needed change in the orthodoxy that has been associated with railway-travelling since the time of Trevelyan. Railway passengers may hence be happy to pay higher fares for technology and engineering, than human services.
Railway comfort or camaraderie?
Train journeys in India are also the finest examples of the Indian preference for entitlements. Tejas is an attempt by the Railways to assuage this aspect of the Indian psyche. Few know about Mark Twain's railway journeys in India. In his descriptions of the railways, the space of the railway carriage seems to assume a discrete imperial superiority and commodiousness.
Twain writes, in Following the Equator (1897), of his railway experience: "It was a car that promised comfort; indeed luxury. Yet the cost of it - well, economy could no further go; ... No car in any country is equal for comfort (and privacy) I think ... Along the whole length of the sofa on each side of the car ran a row of large single-plate windows, of blue tint-blue to soften the bitter glare of the sun and protect one's eyes for torture."
Not all can have the comforts that Twain enjoyed. But everyone still wants a piece of the lower-berth-cake. The lower berth may be considered the poor cousin - a lower-middle class substitute - for the comforts and entitlements that a seat in the Tejas Express promises to the corporate class.
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.
Or many an unconfirmed-ticket-holder has lain in a few hours of rest owing to the kindness of a fellow-passenger, on the side-lower berth.
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.
Meanwhile, enhancing amenities on superfast express trains, such as Tejas, would only isolate passengers more, transforming the railway-experience to nearly a flying-experience - an insulated, brisk and unemotional affair.
Nonetheless, before criticising the railways anymore, without an eye on the economics of the current budget, we must begin to understand the economics of cultural and class segregation that we have started to move towards, once again, while aboard our railways.