My problem with the Indian Railways

Over the last few years, I have always updated posts about the Indian Railways. Some like it, some find it amusing, some find it annoying; I have never really cared.

But I don’t diss the railways for nothing. It is, of course, an unbelievably HUGE organization and the fact that the railways runs so many trains and carries so many passengers in a day is mesmerizing.

But that’s no bloody excuse for the state of affairs. Indian trains aren’t just unpunctual or slow: you could blame those things on the huge cost of infrastructure and an inability to revamp the entire network throughout such a huge country. That is pardonable. But the railways are also shoddy and dirty as hell; what’s the excuse for that?

Every year, a budget is rolled out for the railways. Every year, new amenities are planned for the upper class passengers- wifi, food orders at platforms, resting rooms at stations, online booking for these resting rooms, private caterers who will deliver restaurant food to your seats, e-tickets that can be flashed on your phone or on your laptop, charging points for your tablets and MP3 players and your kids PSPs.

But fuck that! Two coaches away (separated from your air conditioned coach with terminal bogeys so no movement is possible between them) is the other India. That’s where there are no charging points; that’s where there are no reservations; that’s where there are 2-3 passengers for every seat.

That’s where in the killer heat of the Indian summer, five hundred people will sweat in unison: some squeezed against each other on the wooden benches, some standing, others squatting on the floor. In winter, the same number of people will freeze their asses off in unison. Some who are travelling alone will hold their shit in because if they go to the toilets, their seats will be taken when they come back.

This is where the Ticket inspector will find someone travelling with a wrong ticket and charge more money than what’s right; this is where the folks from the pantry car of the train cannot enter while the train is moving, because there is no entry to the ‘general’ coach from the reserved ones.

These are the toilets that are not cleaned at the next important station where a group of uniformed men spray water from the commodes to the doors on the other coaches. These are the toilets which, if you enter, you will no longer fear hell in your afterlife.

Every time I board a train, I see two lines starting from the spot where the general bogeys will come. These line stretch from the center of the platform to its edges. The number of people in that line is always many times higher than the number of seats inside those bogeys. There is a team of policemen with sticks and big bellies guarding the line. There is a team of porters who promise to get you a seat in exchange for 50 rupees or 100.

When the train arrives, there’s mayhem. The able ones jump and hang on to the doors that aren’t even opened. “Coolies” start throwing towels inside. Women with babies in their arms start running and join the mosh pit beside the door. Each one to his own. Or hers. If the chaos gets beyond control- the police swing into action- by randomly beating people- in a routine exercise called a ‘lathicharge‘, a colonial residue leftover from the glorious days of the British when they would swing their batons at anything Brown and moving.

How many get pushed and how many get stamped, and how many get hit by the police, even the plethora of Gods don’t know.

Elsewhere in the world, this happens when food packets are distributed to refugees who have been starving for days, when rescue boats reach the shores of stranded settlements in a flood; in the Indian Railways platforms, it happens every single fucking time.

For an able-bodied young man, a short trip in an unreserved coach is not that bad. Worst comes to worst, I can lean against the wall by the door or just stand for four hours or so. But a long-distance travel is another story all together.

I travelled once by “general” from Mumbai to Hyderabad. It was an enactment of the ship journey of Alex Hailey’s Roots in the 21st century. A coolie took 50 rupees and promised us a seat (Yes, I bribed, I do that a lot. That’s how I get around.) When the train arrived he was nowhere to be found. By the time we broke through the human sea and got inside- another coolie had placed a towel on a seat and said we would have to pay him twenty rupees if we wanted to sit there. We did, after putting up a weak resistance. This twenty hurt more than the fifty outside. That was consensual, this was forced. That was being shrewd, this was being looted. We sat upright on the wooden benches all night. A woman was sitting on the aisle, beside our feet. She had lost a child and was crying. Her husband was drunk- by the looks of it- and was hitting her every few minutes, asking her to stop crying. Like that display of love wasn’t too much to bear already, she had bundled another two children inside two torn blankets and shoved them under the seats, after moving our bags aside. Yes, like that! By morning, I felt so guilty about spending the entire night on the seat even though I had not lost a child nor had a spouse who would hit me at the back of my head, that I got up and stood by the door for the rest of the journey, nested between a dozen raised sweating armpits and their owners in brown holed banyans, slapping tobacco and cracking foul jokes. It was kinda nice, to be honest- now that I think of it.

It’s of course, easy for me to say that, because I obviously don’t travel general out of compulsion.

Apart from the fares, there is little difference between the unreserved class and the pampered travellers. The general class bogeys smell of sweat and their toilets, of urine and shit. The aisles in the AC give you a range of sock smells as you walk past a bogey. Migrant workers will be playing songs from the 90s aloud on Chinese phones in the general bogeys; a family will be playing aloud a pirated hall print of the latest film on their laptop in the AC coach. And honestly, the number of stares a woman travelling alone in either class would be the same.

The Indian railways is THE CHEAPEST mode of transport in the world. The general class fares are HEAVILY subsidised. But so are the sleeper class fares and the Air conditioned classes. And yet, the upper class passengers behave like they own the train.

Giving cheap transport is one thing. Making people travel 48 hours or more in extreme weather conditions, piled up like cattle and poultry is inhuman.

7 decades after the colonial powers left, Indians are dividing their passengers into five different classes. Five! Even the English don’t do that anymore.

So when you and I brag about wifi on trains, or complain about its speed; when we feel pampered on the Rajdhanis, or when we complain the dal doesn’t taste good; When we thank God for chancing upon a charging point in a sleeper compartment, or when we complain about the AC being turned up too high in the night- just remember- we are not just the customers of, but also a reason behind the continuation of, a malignant, classist system that has a different modus operandi for the haves and have-nots.

The railway budget of 2015 apparently included suggestions made by online users- on Facebook , on Twitter, How many of these suggestions suggested increasing the number of general bogeys even by 1 (that’s 20% less misery), of making conditions in these coaches more humane, of actually getting the system to work for those who can’t pay for air conditioning and Dettol soap in toilets?

A century ago, when a upper-caste Indian, educated in England and working in South Africa, was asked to leave a reserved coach, the indignation and humiliation he felt led him to start a revolution that fought against discrimination in two countries, inspired anti-colonial movements throughout the world, and secured the independence of the world’s most populated colony.

\A hundred years later, in the same country, the same apartheid rears its ugly head every day, every moment, on every train.


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