Had previous Railway Ministers, including Mamata Banerjee, raised fares marginally over the years, the current sharp hike would not have been necessary.

In recent years Ministers have resigned, or have been asked to resign, over corruption charges. The late Lal Bahadur Shastri was the only Railway Minister to have quit, in the early 1960s, owning moral responsibility for a rail accident. There have been several Railway Ministers since then and an unending sequence of accidents claiming dozens, even hundreds, of lives — but no resignations. If Dinesh Trivedi, who recently replaced Mamata Banerjee as Union Railway Minister representing the Trinamool Congress, resigns, he will be the first Minister forced to step down because of his party's unhappiness with his budget proposals — in particular, the increase in passenger fares announced in his maiden budget presented to Parliament on Wednesday. That same night his party boss, Ms Banerjee, faxed a letter to the Prime Minister asking him to sack the Railway Minister and offered to nominate a replacement.

Mr. Trivedi made it clear in the Lok Sabha on Thursday morning that he had not yet resigned; he would do so if the Prime Minister or the Trinamool chief asks for it. Earlier, Finance Minister and UPA trouble-shooter Pranab Mukherjee spoke to Ms Banerjee to get her concurrence to put off the Railway Minister's resignation until the presentation of the Union budget on Friday. But in the meantime, some Trinamool MPs and functionaries went on a protest fast outside Parliament, opposing the proposed increase in passenger fares.

As expected, both Houses of Parliament were rocked by the developments overnight. The Opposition benches wanted to know if Mr. Trivedi was still the Railway Minister. Leader of the House in the Lok Sabha Mr. Mukherjee made it clear that the Prime Minister had not received any resignation but only a fax communication from Ms Banerjee, the leader of an ally in the coalition. No decision had been taken on that as yet.

The question remains: Should the TMC gun for Mr. Trivedi at this juncture? Would it not suffice to demand and secure a partial rollback on the hikes pertaining to passenger train and second class fares? How would it affect the aam admi if the first class or air-conditioned class fares are revised and that too after eight long years? Should there be such a drama just because the TMC nominee did not follow the party policy of no increase rail fares?

That brings us to the next logical question: Who is responsible for the current financial mess that the Indian Railways finds itself in? None other than Ms Banerjee herself. Instead of remaining glued to Kolkata and West Bengal, if she had spent more time at Rail Bhavan, and found out for herself the sorry state of affairs in the Railways, things would not have gone this far. If successive Railway Ministers had gone in for a marginal three to five-per-cent revision in fares over the years, the hefty increase that Mr. Trivedi has now proposed may not have been necessary.

The Railways still needs funds to manage the monolith. Remember that the Indian Railways is the country's largest employer — about 14 lakh employees, and a proposal to recruit another one lakh in the coming year. If the Centre does not want to step up its budgetary support beyond a certain limit, how does it finance the Railway budget? The annual plan for 2012-13 has been set for Rs.60,100 crore — hardly 10 per cent more than last year. The Central budgetary support is restricted to Rs.24,000 crore. Given the high cost of addressing safety and security concerns, the Railways needs to generate internal resources. Last week, through a rationalisation of the freight tariff, it garnered Rs.20,000 crore. The present fare revision should fetch an additional Rs.7,000 crore. With a partial rollback, it could come to Rs.5,000 crore or less. This is better than nothing. Should the Minister be sacked for what he thinks is “doing his duty to the country and the Indian Railways?”

For the UPA, this TMC drama comes as another crisis in an already difficult situation. Naturally, the entire Opposition cornered the government in Parliament on the status of the Railway Minister. When the Congress is trying to shore up the numbers, constituents of the UPA are creating one crisis after another. Without being able to focus on governance, the UPA and Congress managers seem to be fully engrossed only in crisis management. The Dinesh Trivedi crisis is surely one that the UPA-II could have done without, but it is not its fault that the TMC's volatile leader is so unpredictable.

jayanth@thehindu.co.in

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