Taking advantage of the indifference of passengers, the Indian Railways routinely indulges in several unfair trade practices, says S Pushpavanam.
Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters
The Indian Railways are a shining example of how a monopoly exploits its users.
Passengers rarely take a bird's eye view of the overall functioning of the Indian Railways, as only the availability of a confirmed berth is uppermost in their minds.
They thus naturally set aside all other concerns, including the stinking toilet which stinks not because, as the railway says, the public does not know how to use the toilets, but because the lavatory flush knobs are too hard to push.
Every failed attempt thus adds to the stench.
Taking advantage of the indifference of passengers, the Indian Railways routinely indulges in several unfair trade practices.
Leave alone users being consulted, they are not even informed of the changes.
For instance, do you know they have quietly removed the half-ticket? It exists in name but only in the unreserved class.
Do you know that telescopic fares have also been abolished?
Telescopic fare is when the travel is longer the fare is not proportionately higher.
For instance, there was only one ticket for the journey from Tiruchi to Chandigarh, with the fare being cheaper than the combined fares of three journeys -- Tiruchi-Chennai, Chennai-Delhi and Delhi-Chandigarh.
But now you must buy three tickets, pay three reservation charges and three super-fast surcharges (except in sleepers).
From 50 in the 1980s, there are now 602 pairs of superfast trains. They fetch Rs 15, Rs 30, Rs 45 or Rs 75 extra from each ticket depending on the class.
Many trains running earlier at 53kmph now do 55kmph (the speed norm for superfast) to make it deceitfully 'superfast'.
Often they run late -- the journey time exceeding that of an express train, but proportionate fares are not refunded.
Express trains even today do not have a speed norm. Some do 38 kmph (train number 05305) while and some do 52.5kmph (train number 16181).
When a grocery merchant slashes away 100 bags of dal to sell them later at a higher price, he can be booked under the Hoarding Act and Essential Commodities Act.
But when the railways slashes away 30% of the berths when the reservation opens 120 days earlier and sells them from 48 hours before departure at an extra cost of Rs 100 to Rs 200 (minimum and maximum) for sleeper class, Rs 300 to rs 400 for A/c 3-tier and Rs 400 to Rs 500 for A/c 2 tier extra, to exploit the last day demand, they get away with it.
This is price gouging, or exploiting an artificially created shortage to raise prices to an unfair level.
Railway rules prohibit the use of berths for sleeping from 6:00 hours to 22:00 hours. Yet several day trains have SL, A/c 3-tier, A/c 2 tier coaches and passengers are charged fares accordingly.
If a passenger unfolds his middle berth to sleep, two other passengers cannot sit.
When sleeping is prohibited or when they do not need it, why should they pay for sleeper class or A/c 2 or 3 tier? That is because chair car coaches are very few.
For travel from 1 km up to 100 km one must a pay a minimum fare of Rs 428 in A/c 3-tier and Rs 613 (peak season fare) or Rs 593(lean season fare)!
The Indian Railways want you to feel they are doing charity by printing in the counter tickets that 53% of the fares are subsidised.
What you do not know is that we are propping up an inefficient railways which have an operating ratio of 96% and which spends an incredible 53% of its revenue expenditure on staff cost.
A railway survey as reported by The Times of India in March says that 13,521 employees, still on the rolls, had been absent for months without information, some of them for five years.
In the Southern Railway alone, 1476 employees have been absent unauthorisedly for months.
Who do you think pays their salaries? It is you and me who pay the increased fares!
When money to the railways goes from the government kitty, it is the money of the non-users -- Kuppans, Suppans and Kuppayees if you will -- many of whom may not have so much as seen a railway coach.
quo suits them.
In 2016, the Central Vigilance Commission received 11,200 corruption complaints against railway employees -- the highest against any organisation.
In the last three years, 18,500 railway officials have been booked for corruption internally, a report tabled in Parliament recently said.
The railways have no answer for the Bibek Debroy committee's questions: 'Why do two-thirds of locomotives develop problems within six months of periodic overhaul?'
'Why do two-thirds of goods trains leave late because locomotives are not available?'
For us, the answer is obvious.
Vikas Arya, executive director, Indian Railways, in a circular has asked all GMs and DRMs not to fudge punctuality and accident data in 2018-2019. So you know what they were doing all these years!
Railway Minister Piyush Goyal would not trust hundreds of assistant bridge engineers, bridge engineers and chief bridge engineers of the railways, but would give the job of re-building Mumbai's Elphinstone Road over-bridge to the army. That is because he wants to get things done.
He is wise, having known the extent of corruption and the degree of inefficiency.
How I wish the army took over the entire Indian Railways!
S Pushpavanam is secretary, Consumer Protection Council, Tamil Nadu. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org