NEW DELHI (AFP) - Angry demonstrators blocked a railway track in northern India on Saturday in protest against a steep hike in rail fares announced by the government in its first tough step aimed at reforming a sluggish economy.
Scores of flag-waving protesters shouted slogans demanding an immediate rollback in the fares during the demonstration in Uttar Pradesh's Allahabad city, which held up rail traffic for nearly an hour. TV footage showed protesters getting on to the tracks and forcing the Ganga-Gomti passenger train to halt.
Rail passenger fares were on Friday increased by 14.2 per cent and freight rates by 6.5 per cent with effect from June 25. Railway Minister Sadananda Gowda said he was "forced" to take the step in order "to meet all the necessary expenditure", hinting at the financial crunch the network is facing.
The Indian railway system, one of the world's largest, is still the main form of long-distance travel in the huge country. But years of financial neglect and populist policy of subsidising fares have hit the network hard.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing government, which came to power a month ago after overthrowing the ruling Congress, has pledged to revive the economy after it grew at just 4.7 per cent last year - the lowest in nearly a decade.
The hike is seen as the first dose of the "bitter medicine" that Mr Modi recently warned was needed to revive the economy, Asia's third-biggest.
The opposition slammed the fare hike, saying it would put an "additional burden" on the shoulders of the middle-class and the poor. "This comes at a time when the prices of onions and potatoes have skyrocketed. As an opposition party, we demand an immediate rollback of this hike," said Congress spokesman Ajay Maken.
However, in an editorial Saturday, the Economic Times daily welcomed the "courage" shown by Mr Modi's government in raising the fares. It said the move was justified, given the high fuel costs and "railways' desperate need for more revenues".