The Indian railways have always been presented as a legacy of the British colonial times in India. From being dubbed as the symbol of crony socialism to ministers utilising it for their political agenda – it has been a national shame.
However, that does not undermine the countless enjoyable journeys one has on Indian railways, despite the ironical paranoid agony for the safety and comfort of the Indian railways. The shameful and heart-wrenching incidents of derailment due to human error or infrastructural bottlenecks and sabotage theories end up just as another piece of news and government compensation carnival packages. Last mile connectivity in India through the railways honestly has not seen much progress since the time the British left.
The Indian Railway’s mascot ‘Bholu‘ is a bit funny but may be quite apt regarding the Indian way of being an elephant. The regal combined with the laziness aptly paints the picture of Indian railway of today. On one hand Indian railways operates “Palace on wheels”, “Deccan Queen” and “Maharaja Express” in the most luxurious segment of railway journeys around the world. On the other, you have some of the most crowded railways.
Similarly, from personal experience, it can be shared that if you want to move from the west to the east of India via train, then you are either jobless or looking to travel the country on a budget. The contractors for the Indian railways who are given the jobs to supply the blankets and other amenities subcontract them to the other smaller parties. When it comes to service, it is not of much help.
The system is hung over from the British times. From the method of manually checking tickets to the state of the bathrooms, not much has changed.
When it comes to speed of the train travel, it is another universe. The safety and the sheer pressure of the Indian railways regarding volume in proportion to the investment it has received is akin to a termite chewing at wooden furniture or a book that hasn’t been cared for in decades.
My maternal grandfather who had served in the Indian railways could not help lamenting at the deterioration of the railways over the decades. I actually travelled from Kolkata to Ahmedabad, traversing 2000 kilometres. It felt like going on a trans-Siberian railways journey. However, it was not that romantic except for the natural beauty of India.
The restrooms lacked water from the second day. Although a journey on the Indian railways overnight can make you acquainted with passengers as if they were family, the filth generated is not that great. The pantry had been discarded from the train which had set out for a 51-hour journey. The food safety audits had dismissed the food quality as being unfit for human consumption. This was a slap in the face of Indian railways.
Here we are craving to be an active nation while a critical artery for the country’s economy – the Indian railways, has been neglected regarding service quality. Criticism alone does not help, and features like cleanliness complaint on Twitter, the introduction of Tejas like posh trains based on western standards are steps being taken in the recent slew of measures.
However, one cannot help but wonder if these measures, along with investment in bullet trains, are actually the beginning of the turnaround in the Indian railways. Talks about the transfer of technology from France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland had been doing the rounds for last couple of years. However, whether the technology transfer can actually result in speedier travel remains to be seen.
While the Indian Railways has been treated as a stepchild concerning policy implementation, the aviation sector has picked up and is looking for more footprints regarding revenue earning in India. Infrastructure build-up of the government entity that employs more than a million people is not just the need of the hour, but of the very moment. Being an Indian myself, I have heard, read and felt that the greater change will come to the platforms to make them at least decent if not world class
The government has tried to provide free wifi in collaboration with Google. The quest to keep the stations clean despite the questionable civic sense of a significant chunk of Indians is also commendable. However, the policy implementation required to bring the Indian railways – the original national transport across the vast geographic expanse of India – out of its coma is surely waiting. Not patiently, but restlessly.
The recent tragedy of stampede in Mumbai is another glaring example of how understaffed and underprepared the Indian railway infrastructure is. Scenic journeys across beautiful landscapes, giving joy to individuals, groups, or families, can only be enhanced if the care for Indian railways is shown properly.
We need to be realistic and rather than Europe, China should serve as a prime example of how railways in a vastly developing nation can be brought to a world-class level. It is easier said than done in India, where the diversity or political games being played make it a frustratingly complex and super bureaucratic task.
The responsibility and pride of the employees of the Indian Railways have been dangling for a long time, probably on a thin straw of people who work tirelessly and sincerely for its upkeep. The sheer vacancies and the nepotism in filling those vacancies can spin the Indian economy into a whole new orbit.
Speaking of a dedicated freight corridor alongside the industrial corridors of the near future such as Delhi to Mumbai can only be pushed through a rejuvenation of Indian railways. I don’t want to make it a monologue and even less a policy commentary, but unless we look hard at the fallacies of the Indian railways, derailments and more loss of human life and precious resources are always waiting to happen.
In the ecosystem of the Indian railways, everyone from porters (rechristened as sevaks– ‘helpers’ in Hindi, instead of the lowly ‘coolie’ used by the British) to the shopkeepers, railway track checkers, station masters, train attendants, etc. has a role to play. Notwithstanding the government circles, of course.
Hopefully, we can steer the railways towards a better future.