Thursday, April 06, 2006

Here & there: India - metros and trains - Razi Azmi

Here is the second in a series of four articles about a Pakistani writer’s trip to India. The original can be seen here.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

William Dalrymple recently wrote that one ought to visit Bihar if one wished to see India as a failed state, adding that if one wanted to see how India will look if it succeeds, one should go to Bangalore instead. Perhaps, time will tell

Kolkata has an underground metro train line with 17 stations extending over 16 kilometres. Service is cheap, frequent and punctual. In contrast to the city above them, the underground trains and stations are quite clean. The metro, India’s first, used to evoke pride among the people of Kolkata, but now it is no match for the spick and span, ultra-modern and larger metro system of Delhi.

Metro or not, Kolkata’s decline commenced when the British moved the capital to Delhi in 1912. The partition of Bengal in 1947 (resulting in the separation of East Bengal, now Bangladesh) hastened the decline, which was aggravated by decades of Communist rule.

If there is one thing that can definitely make the Bengalis of Kolkata and West Bengal (and, to a lesser extent, Bangladesh) proud, it is their affinity for literature, dance and drama. Many years ago, a special issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review had commented that only in Kolkata were you likely to meet a police officer who could discuss Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

When I mentioned this to a friend, he confirmed its veracity from his personal experience. After the Bangladesh war of 1971 he had been arrested and taken to the police station chief in a border town of West Bengal for illegally crossing the Bangladesh-India border. On seeing that he was reading a novel by Tolstoy, the chief ordered his immediate release! But the captor didn’t let his prisoner go until the two had exchanged a word or two about Tolstoy.

Kolkata has been made famous by Satyajit Ray, one of the best film directors the world has produced. In 1992, on his deathbed, he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Special Oscar.

If their metro train and cultural accomplishments give pride and joy to the people of Kolkata their man-drawn rickshaws are a blight. Not many are left, and they are confined to a small section of the city, but it is a pathetic sight to see a human being, tethered to a two-wheeled rickshaw much like a horse, running on the street pulling passengers seated at the back.

By Indian standards, Kolkata only gets a trickle of Western “backpacker” tourists and most of them arrive only in transit from Bangkok heading for other destinations in India. The many hotels and restaurants in the city thrive on account of visitors from neighbouring Bangladesh — businessmen, tourists and students.

Thousands of Bangladeshi students pursue higher studies in India and many Bangladeshi colleges and universities take their students on “study trips” to India. Kolkata is not only a point of entry into India for Bangladeshis, but it is for Bengalis everywhere what Lahore is to Punjabis. It is their cultural Mecca.

Motorways and roads are being constructed throughout India at a frenetic pace. Their centrepiece is the oddly named Golden Quadrilateral connecting the four so-called mega-cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

There are many private airlines operating in India, Jet Airways, Air Sahara, Deccan Air, Spicejet and Kingfisher being the major ones with large fleets of modern planes. The traffic at Delhi airport (India’s second busiest, after Mumbai) is comparable to some Western airports: a steady stream of planes landing and taking off. Thirty-five airlines fly to Delhi. There are over two dozen flights daily between Delhi and Mumbai alone.

Most Indians can’t afford to fly and, owing to the huge distances, trains remain by far the principal mode of long-distance transportation. Given the high demand for railway tickets, buying one usually entails standing in long queues and well in advance of the travel date. Ticketing is fully computerised and tickets may be bought anywhere in India from any point of origin to any destination.

The Indian railway system as a whole is a wonder. It is a massive network, the world’s largest, inherited from the British but hugely expanded and improved in the last 50 years. Single tracks have been turned into double tracks, lines have been electrified and many metre gauge lines have been converted to broad gauge.

The number of trains that run on the tracks is just unbelievable. Excellent long-distance overnight trains named Rajdhani Express connect the national capital with virtually every distant state capital. Comfortable daytime short-haul trains called Shatabdi Express connect the capital with nearer destinations such as Lucknow, Agra, Jaipur, Amritsar and Chandigarh.

Trains may run late, they may be overcrowded, but they run with a frequency and cover distances that are mind-boggling. But derailments and accidents are rather frequent and the human toll is often high. Ignorance and human error are to blame as much as technical failure, ageing equipment and infrastructure problems.

I will be less than frank if I did not tell readers that my first railway journey in India 15 years ago was a disaster. As I was sleeping on an upper birth in an express train from Hyderabad to Chennai, I woke up in shock in the middle of a very dark and wet night about halfway through my journey. A thunderous roar and shaking confirmed my worst fears: my train had derailed.

Slowly but surely my coach overturned and fell on its side. Although a total of eight coaches overturned injuring many passengers, fortunately no one died. I escaped without a scratch and arrived at my destination safe and well, though a bit shaken, about 14 hours late. As reported in the next day’s newspaper, the derailment was caused by “metal fatigue” of the track when the train was travelling at a speed of 80 kilometres per hour.

The accident had occurred at about 2:45am. The relief train arrived nearly three hours later. By then all passengers, some screaming from pain, had been pulled out of the overturned coaches by villagers. When the relief train did arrive, the “rescuers” had little to do except transport the passengers to the nearest station.

Other than this “minor inconvenience”, my experience of the Indian railways has been pleasant. I have travelled from Mumbai to Delhi, Kolkata to Varanasi, Allahabad to Delhi via Lucknow and Jaipur to Delhi via Agra, in addition to Hyderabad-Chennai.

Indeed, a journey on the Indian railway is likely to be an educative experience in multiculturalism, human camaraderie and plain efficiency at a low cost. I must admit, though, that I travelled first class most of the time, with the added privilege of booking my place on the trains through the special facility for foreigners.

Indian trains are India in microcosm, both for better and worse. If the state of the state of Bihar is any guide, the decision to make Laloo Prasad Yadav the minister of railways doesn’t bode well. During the 15 years that Yadav ruled Bihar directly or through his wife and cronies, it descended into violence and lawlessness.

The well-known writer on India, William Dalrymple, recently wrote that one ought to visit Bihar if one wished to see India as a failed state, adding that if one wanted to see how India will look if it succeeds, one should go to Bangalore instead.

Perhaps, time will tell. But the Indian railways are too serious a business to be left in the hands of any politician, let alone one with Yadav’s reputation.

This is the second part of a series of articles. The writer can be contacted at


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