‘Class’ify the Railways

Listening to Suresh Prabhu presenting the Railway Budget, I wondered whether he was really promising to bring back the halcyon days of luxury on the rails. But no, he can’t and won’t. No politician dare admit that a successful railway system must reflect the social divisions of everyday life.

However, Mr Prabhu must be complimented for resisting the temptation (so far at least) of trying to earn popularity like some of his predecessors. He hasn’t yet set up railway workshops in his constituency or diverted trains there. There’s no Duronto Express to commemorate him. Instead, he made the welcome announcement of substantially higher spending on safety, infrastructure modernisation and network decongestion. He also agreed to make stations more passenger-friendly with lifts and escalators.

I’ll be quite happy, too, if trains that “save 20 per cent of journey time” only mean returning to the old realistic timetable instead of aping bullet trains, which could spell disaster here. It’s no secret that as the railways became more and more inefficient, the running time of trains was extended so that they appeared to be on time.

It remains to be seen, however, if a qualified chartered accountant with links to the World Bank, Berlin’s Free University and the Wharton School will make a qualitative difference to railway travel.

The present dereliction betrays the perception and lifestyle of ministers like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mamata Banerjee. Actually, the rot set in with the austere Morarji Desai who regarded the lounge in first class air-conditioned Rajdhani bogies as unnecessary indulgence. Mercifully, he didn’t make passengers spin yarn, munch nuts, and drink worse. But Mr Yadav ensured tea was served in little clay bowls as in the wayside stalls he felt at home in. Madhavrao Scindia, with a railway chugging round the edge of his dining table, was too pragmatic to impose his princely vision on others, but he did introduce fresheners.

Texas-educated Dinesh Trivedi from a rich business background acknowledges that, “poor people travel in filthy unreserved compartments that rob them of their human dignity”. He left unsaid that successive railway ministers thought it politically correct to make that the norm. The concept of affordable luxury has drained out of Indian life and it’s idle to expect the return of, say, the dining cars that once lent culinary grace to the Kalka Mail. But I can hear them chortling with delight in the villages of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan over Mr Prabhu’s dazzling distractions like wi-fi, disposable bed linen, mobile charging facilities and “entertainment” on wheels. These sops to the craving for modernity won’t contribute much to basic comfort.

The biggest challenge the railway minister faces is not timely completion of ambitious projects for which there may not be enough money — not even if '8.5 lakh crore are invested — but untrained manpower. I speak of both staff and passengers. The former is lazy and callous; the latter ignorant and often crude. I don’t know what will happen to the 17,000 vacuum toilets Mr Prabhu intends to install but the problem now is that toilets are badly designed and badly made. They are also misused. The Budget speech didn’t indicate any awareness of these human problems. The 17,000 new toilets will probably still be badly designed and made. They will also be misused.

As for the promised hygiene, Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) staff needs foundation courses in cleanliness. They must be told, for instance, that the floor space between two lavatories running with dirty water on a Shatabdi Express isn’t the best place to lay out uncovered lunch trays to arrange the little bowls of rice, dal, curry, etc.

As I have said before in these columns, all that the farce of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (to which Mr Prabhu as a loyal party man naturally did several deep pranams during his Budget speech) tells us is that the armies of jamadars, whom the railways and other undertakings already employ, neglect the work they are paid to do. Those who are supposed to supervise them are either indifferent to filth or too lethargic to bother. Narendra Modi seized on this failure to turn what should be a simple matter of routine departmental discipline into a political crusade to impress the gullible and gain public applause.

Mr Prabhu may not be guilty of similar opportunism. But his Budget shows he is in danger of ignoring the wood for the trees. It is unfashionable to say so but the era of gracious railway travel, of the Fairy Queen, the Frontier Mail or the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway’s toy train, rested on honest acknowledgement of the class structure. Third class compartments haven’t improved qualitatively because they are called general class. The people who travel in them (the people Mr Trivedi spoke of — “poor people (who) struggle to get inside a compartment” after queueing a day in advance — haven’t become more sophisticated in their needs and habits.

My earliest memory in pre-air conditioned days is of panelled and cushioned first class compartments with attached bathrooms. Blue-uniformed railway sweepers with brush and pan cleaned them at major stops while khansamas in crisp white uniform served delicious meals. Friends and relatives often travelled in the second or inter classes, which were also perfectly acceptable. Third class was for servants and the poor.

We need hugely increased third or general class accommodation, as well as distinctly separate compartments for those who can pay for comfort. Each rung in the old hierarchy boasted its own merits. Subsequent innovations have removed fittings, reduced services, blurred distinctions, and created a uniform level of squalor. It’s the egalitarian myth that equality means not raising the poor but downgrading the rich.

The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author

( Source : dc )
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