Indian Railway
Indian Railway Reuters

The Central government, which hiked rail fares for passengers by 14.2 percent on Friday, came under the line of fire from the opposition and other parties who demanded a rollback.

On Friday, less than three weeks before the Rail Budget is set to be announced in the Parliament, the railway ministry increased not just passenger fares but also levied a 6.5 percent hike on freight charges.

The hike was met with strong protests across the country, and several party leaders demanded a rollback.

"The government has imposed burdens on the 'aam aadmi' who voted them to power," Congress leader Manish Tewari told Hindustan Times.

Just last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given indications of stringent economic measures by the government, which he termed as a "bitter medicine".

The Ministry of Railways had defended the move in a statement it issued that said: "Meeting the annual expenditure would not be possible unless the revised rates as finalised by previous government is implemented. Hence the order withdrawing implementation of revised fare and freight has been withdrawn".

Railway Minister DV Sadananda Gowda in fact said that the decision was merely an implementation of "the order of the previous UPA government", which had in its interim budget earlier this year proposed a rail fare hike and announced it on May 16 but later withdrew it for the next government to take the decision.

The hike is expected to bring the Railways ₹8,000 crore more in this fiscal year, according to news reports.

While the fare hike has set the ground for the Railway Budget, a major step expected to be taken by the government is to allow 100 percent Foreign Direct Investment in the railways, according to news reports.

Former railway minister Nitish Kumar, head of the Janata Dal (United) came out in strong criticism of the decision to hike fares. "They are promising the country that 'Achye deen aa gaye hain' (good days have come) and promoting bad tradition," Kumar was quoted by the Financial Express, referring to the announcement of the fare hike before the Railway Budget is presented in the Parliament.

The Congress and CPI(M) in Kerala also strongly protested the hike in railway passenger fares and freight rates and demanded that it be rolled back, according to the Press Trust of India.

"It is the beginning of many severe measures of the NDA government, which the Prime Minister had pointed out a few days back," said Chief Minister Oommen Chandy.

Congress General Secretary Ajay Maken said that the rail fare hike will in turn further aggravate food inflation, which reached 9.50 percent in May.

"The increase in railway fares means an increase in the cost in transpotrt of food items, which in turn will lead to inflation in food prices," Maken was quoted saying.

The fare hike is expected to affect the poor, and will particularly press on those who travel daily by suburban railways in cities such as Mumbai. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik called the centre's decision as "anti-poor" and "anti-people".

The increase in freight charges did not go down well with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) either, which, in a statement said: "While inevitable, the industry, currently reeling under a low growth scenario, can ill-afford the freight increase especially on bulk heavy industries like Steel, which contributes about 20% of the freight revenue of Indian Railways and are already under stress".