Political Commentaries

Rlys Cannot Bear the ‘Burden’ of Senior Citizens

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Rlys Cannot Bear the ‘Burden’ of Senior Citizens

by Tuchar Charan

Even though the NDA government headed by Narendra Modi has singularly failed to take advantage of the country’s ‘demographic dividend’, as proved by the huge unemployed population under 40 years of age, one of the major departments of the government, the Indian Railways, has said that it cannot bear the ‘burden’ of allowing ‘subsidised’ train fare for senior citizens.

Rather inelegantly, the railway minister has said that the citizens have a very wide choice for travelling on Indian Railways: There is First Class Ac, Second Class Ac, Sleeper (Ac and non-AC) coaches, unreserved compartments and so on.

What is he trying to say? If one cannot afford to travel in an AC coach, one can always jump into the crowded unreserved coaches? He could not have chosen a more insulting way to denigrate the senior citizens because in the opinion of the government they are a ‘burden’.  

Concessional fares were available to senior citizens (people above 60 years) till the Covid pandemic hit the country. It was assumed that once the pandemic is over, the facility for the seniors would be restored. It is obviously not going to be.

The ‘insensitive’ announcement arouses a suspicion that it is linked to the likelihood of privatization of the Railways. Much as the government may deny it, it looks a distinct possibility when the ‘family silver’ is on sale.

The handing over of the Railways to private parties may proceed cautiously and step-by-step, but with railway stations already being taken over by private parties the direction in which the government-owned Indian Railways is moving cannot be doubted.

The permanent withdrawal of train fare concession to senior citizens coincides with the grand scale celebrations of Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, which fits into the government penchant for staging big ‘events’ all through the year. Ironically, the government is celebrating the Diamond Jubilee year of Indian Independence by making an announcement that insults the elderly population—nearly 10 crores. New India has no place for Old Indians.      

The ‘subsidy’ on train fares cost the Railways less than Rs 5,000 crore between March 2020 and March 2022, according to some media reports. That is, of course, not a small sum. But the Railways would have a stronger case if it had withdrawn the facility of life-long concessional train fares for the present and past law makers.

The privileges available to the serving and past MPs are not confined to train fare concessions. But it sounds downright unfair to continue with the concessions for the past MPs who are also entitled to life-long pension even if they have served just one term of five years (or even less). There is no doubt that the ‘burden’ of these subsidies would add up several times more than what goes into providing concessional train fares to senior citizens.

The senior citizens in India get a raw deal from the government and, might one add, from the society itself where the elderly people are often viewed as ‘burdens’ because they are believed to be unproductive. There are government schemes, including pension, for the senior citizens but they are insufficient and are not availed universally due to many factors, including ignorance.

Prime Minister Modi has asked his party members and leaders to do their utmost to advertise various ‘welfare’ schemes of the government that have been floated with a clear eye on gathering votes. As for the ‘welfare’ schemes, quite a few of them have been found to be poorly implemented.

But the question is not about how well or poorly the ‘welfare’ schemes are implemented; the simple point is how does the government say (as the railway minister has) that concessional train fares for senior citizens place a ‘burden’ on government finances?

Travel by senior citizens in India of 1.3 billion people is not of a large scale; about 4 to 5 core people in a year. Nearly 90 per cent of these seniors are those who retired from jobs that have no provision for pension. What is more those, who held jobs, worked for at least 30 or 40 years during their working years. These years may not have been spent on very trying or strenuous jobs but people hanker after jobs in the hope of some security in later life. Quite a few lead a financially stressed post-retirement life. Unemployment makes it harder.

Without meaning to be disrespectful towards the present and past elected representatives, might one ask that if a ‘job’ lasting no more than five years entitles one to certain concessions for life, what is wrong if the lesser mortals expect concessional train fare in old age; especially in a country that offers very little of real social security to the elderly.

It is ridiculous of the government to talk disapprovingly of offering ‘subsidy’ to a financially disadvantaged section of the population when the richest in the land enjoy sumptuous tax reliefs. The number of the ‘super rich’ in India has been growing by leaps and bounds; they were able to increase their wealth even during the worse period of Covid pandemic while the income of the poorer sections headed south. The word ‘subsidy’ has a different meaning when applied to the ‘crony’ capitalists!###