The Railways and the airways have approached the lean period problem in contrasting ways. Some of the airways have slashed their fares, while the Railways hiked passenger fares in their bid to wriggle out of their tight economic situation.

Time will tell whether the action of some of the flight operators affects the Railways, which hurriedly hiked fares aiming to cash in on the Kumbh Mela rush to bridge the gap in its falling revenue earnings ahead of the financial closure in March and the presentation of the Railway Budget in February.

The Railways first hiked the surcharge on tickets related to the Kumbh Mela and then hiked the lower economy class by about 25 per cent in a desperate bid to capitalise on the pilgrimage to the confluence in Allahabad to offset the lean period till April-end.

Apparently to present a people-friendly budget, the Railways completed their exercise of fare hikes in one go and did not spare the higher air conditioned classes.

The Railways provide additional facilities and corner a part of the pilgrims heading for the Kumbh Mela, which might have come as a bonanza for the economically blighted national transporter, as it had exhausted the other avenue of raising revenue by hiking freight charges.

Freight rates were hiked ahead of the presentation of the budget for 2012-13 in a bid to bring down the losses of the Railways.

It is now feared that any further hike would price it out of the market, particularly when the budgeted target for freight seemed out of its reach for the current financial year.

Perhaps the Railways had not reckoned with the possibility of a slash in base price of air tickets by some of the private operators making air travel attractive, to the chagrin of the Railways. One hopes it does not turn to be a financial miscalculation.

Usually, pilgrimages are encouraged and the burden is limited to a surcharge on tickets.

This time, the conditions are different. Pushed to a corner, the Railways saw the Kumbh Mela as the only way out.

On auspicious days, the number of devotees arriving for a holy dip is estimated to cross 40 million. The Railways are hoping that the double fare hike does not discourage the devotees this time.

The tragedy of the Railways is that there is a drop, in not only freight, but also passenger traffic. Last year, it increased freight rates to make up for the loss, this year it turned its attention to passenger fares.

The authorities are praying that their decision does not make more of its passengers look skywards.

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