One of the issues that is being discussed across groups of senior citizens at different places is that related to 'restoration of railway concession' for travel in train by senior citizens. This concessional facility that was earlier given to senior citizens was withdrawn during the pandemic. The facility available was for men with more than 60 years of age and women with more than 58 years of age, concession being available in several types of mode of travel including general, sleepers and A/C. The concession was amounting to 50 per cent and 40 per cent for women and men respectively.
Research shows that a significant number of senior citizens travel by train mode for various purpose. The number of senior citizens who travelled by trains for last three years has been around 6.18 crores, 1.90 crores and 5.50 crores for the years 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 respectively. The drastic fall during 2020-21 was obviously due to the pandemic. Analysis shows that train travel, at least, for senior citizens has bounced back to some extent in 2021-22. This has given rise to demand for restoration of rail concession for senior citizens.
As per reply given by the Union Railway Minister in recent past in the Parliament, concession to all categories of passengers including senior citizens is not desirable. This was obviously in view of the huge pressure on railways to ensure its sustainability in the long run. This reply by the Railway Minister in the Parliament sent a message that government was not too keen in revisiting issue of restoration of concession to senior citizens at least in the current form.
This obviously gave rise to serious concerns in minds of senior citizens who are regular railway travelers about their future plans.
Who travels by trains:
Our quick study based on of discussion with senior citizens shows that besides a tiny number of 'elite tourists', more than 90 per cent of railway travelers (senior citizens) do so by 'compulsion and not by choice'. The categories of people include:
1. People traveling from rural places to nearby towns / cities for their own medical treatment
2. People carrying their near and dear ones to nearby bigger places for doctor’s advice / medical treatment
3. People being forced out due to urbanization
4. People traveling due to compulsion of 'seeking labor' in urban places
5. People going for 'spiritual trips' as one of the life’s 'last aspirations'
All the above travels are not by choice or leisure trip but forced by circumstances. In a country where pension by the central government level is as low as Rs 300/- per month, senior citizens below the poverty line (comprising around 35 to 40 per cent of the senior population) cannot think of traveling for pleasure trips.
My Retired Life Foundation (MRLF) like other senior citizens associations appeals for restoration of the entire basket of railway concession as it existed earlier. It appears that the current thinking in Railways is to restore the concession for elders above 70 years of age. In a country like India where life expectancy is '70.19 years' (in 2022), it does not make any real sense. Further our study shows that the percentage of 'mobile population' of senior citizens above 70 years is negligible.
Data shows that 22.6 lakh of senior citizens have voluntarily given up concessions for better facility in the trains. This is hardly 4 per cent of the seniors who traveled during the year by trains. This means that overwhelming majority of senior citizens who travel by trains by force are in need of concessions and they should be given so.
We, however, tend to agree with thinking of the government to take away travel by A/C from purview of concession zone. May be the government think of including 'purpose of travel' as a clause for seeking concession so that it becomes a database of travel by senior citizens for future research. This might help for future policy prescription as and when these are revised.
In a country that is broadly devoid of social society and medical benefits for poor senior citizens, withdrawal of an existing benefit does not suit the merit of a 'welfare state'. Loss in revenues by the Railways may be mitigated by other means. Seniors have given their life for the country by having spent their pink time for growth of nation. It is now time for all of us to give back. If we are not able to meet their legitimate demands like increase in pension or giving free quality medical treatment or creating good modern old age homes in all parts of the country or create a robust law so that they are not exploited, we at least should not take away their existing benefits. Earlier the government takes a positive decision, better will be for all of us.