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Bullet Trains Are All Very Well, But What About The Common Passenger On Indian Railways?

05/02/2016 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia

Dear Mr Prime Minister,

Your recent speech at a global business summit on 29 January has been hailed as visionary. What took most commentators by surprise was your empathy with the poor. You said, and I quote, "When a benefit is given to farmers or to the poor, experts and government officers normally call it a subsidy. However, I find that if a benefit is given to industry or commerce, it is usually called an incentive." You asked your audience whether this reflects a mind-set which unduly favours the well off at the expense of the underprivileged.

R Jagannathan of Swarajya Magazine interprets this statement as indicative that you are non-ideological and want to eschew economic labels in favour of practical solutions, whether from the left or the right.

The jury is still out on what the economic contribution of these high-speed trains will be. But... only the well-off will be able to afford them.

Your speech has confused a lot of people. Your supporters are probably wondering what to make of it. These lines are bound to remind them of the "non-ideological", "pro-solutions" Arvind Kejriwal, public enemy no. 1 for most of them. But you probably also have left-liberals reeling, because you've spoken the lines they love to spout at every meeting, dharna and protest!

Be that as it may, let me narrate an experience I had recently. Last week, around the time you were delivering the speech, I took a train from New Jalpaiguri to Secunderabad. It was a 38-hour-long journey, wonderful and abysmal at the same time. Since the upper middle class and rich have largely abandoned Indian Railways for air travel I've found that an increasing number of passengers in trains are from the working class, those who cannot afford even budget airlines, but need to travel great distances for employment and education.

I tried booking a tatkal ticket a day before the journey, but didn't succeed. I've found that in the last one year it's become virtually impossible to get a tatkal ticket online. Between the time I log in, at the dot of 10am when the booking opens, and manage to pay, all the tickets have already been snapped up and I end up with a waitlisted ticket, which goes to show the number of people trying to book at the same time.

A vast majority of Indians will still use Indian Railways. These are the Indians whose benefits are called subsidies by the economists.

I decided to take my chances and reached New Jalpaiguri station a couple of hours before the train arrived. I bought a waitlisted ticket from the TT and he asked me to get into coach S12, a non-AC sleeper compartment. It was as crowded as the unreserved general bogeys that are attached to the end of all Indian trains, meant for the underclass. I took the same train from Secunderabad to New Jalpaiguri and it was as crowded, though I must admit that it was the beginning of the three-day Sankranti festival and a lot of people were going back home for the holidays.

Anyway, I "adjusted", in the time-honoured tradition of the railways, with a family of itinerant astrologers from rural Telangana. They allowed me to share their seat. I dumped my backpack on the top berth and shamelessly plonked myself next to them. Theirs was a large group of people, all soothsayers, heading home after three months spent in Northeast India reading people's fortunes. They were dispensers of amulets, charms and potions meant to ward off evil spells. Family squabbles, impotency, virility, money issues... they had something for everyone. They would consult their mystical books, check if the stars and planets were casting a malignant influence and come up with a cure.

In the next aisle an animated discussion about politics and religion was reaching fever pitch. Hijras dressed in flashy saris and blouses kept appearing, cajoling, threatening and demanding money. A group of men standing by the toilet refused to part with money and were flashed by the hijras, prompting sniggers all around.

Why is all this relevant, Modiji? In that overcrowded compartment I found myself thinking about bullet trains, which you are championing. Adversity forces you to think of solutions. Just like the only time I think of town planning is when I am stuck in a traffic jam and about power cuts when I am trapped in a lift!

Bullet trains are being promoted as having the potential to boost economic growth in energy efficient ways, just the kind of technology that countries need to keep their economies chugging and emissions low after the Paris climate change agreement. The jury is still out on what the economic contribution of these high-speed trains will be. But one thing is certain, only the well-off will be able to afford them.

I hope the railway budget that will be presented later this month will contain measures that improve the way Indians travel by train.

A vast majority of Indians will still use Indian Railways. These are the Indians whose benefits are called subsidies by the economists. And travelling long distance by train has become a lot more crowded and stressful for them. A NITI Aayog report on Indian Railways says that 23 million people (including suburban travellers) travel daily on 13,000 trains. It also notes that there is a wide gap between demand and supply.

Bullet trains will probably add to the overall GDP and propel the country to an elite list of nations that boasts cutting-edge transport infrastructure. They will shorten travel time and add to economic efficiency. But what about the millions who still rely on trains that cannot exceed 60kmph? Every aspect of train travel -- from booking tickets to finding seats -- has become difficult. Unless your government takes steps to ease the hardship it cannot claim to be benefiting the common person.

Travelling by Indian railways can be a great experience, despite the overcrowded trains, dirty loos and bad food. In fact, the adage "the more the merrier" is perfect for our trains.

I hope the railway budget that will be presented later this month will contain measures that improve the way Indians travel by train.

Sincerely yours,

Tushar

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