theindialog

October 22, 2009

Another Train Ride: A Microcosm of India

Filed under: Bihar,Conversation,Transport — loggers @ 12:06 am

To add to our previous mishap involving getting the Delhi stations confused, we recorded our second rail-related gaffe en route to Patna from Jamshedpur. While trying to find out whether our train was delayed through the railway hotline[i], we entered the train number of the ‘up’ train instead of the ‘down’ train. As a result, we thought that the train was running 3 hrs late. Upon reaching the station, the TC and police officer in charge couldn’t hold back their laughter when we told our story. No more trains were going to Patna that evening. Not wanting to lose any more time, we returned early the next morning and bought the first available tickets: unreserved seats in non-AC chair car.

Co-passenger Killing Time

Co-passenger Killing Time

What followed over the next 12 hours was one of the most exhilarating, educational and eventful trips we have taken thus far. The train turned out to be a ‘slow’ one, stopping at almost every station along the way. As a result, we encountered a variety of passengers who were on board for only brief periods. These ranged from sadhus to drunkards to laborers to farmers carrying produce (our seats were eventually taken up by sacks of grains). We couldn’t resist but to strike up conversations with some of them, to get a pulse on the lives of the ‘aam admi’.

Between the Bogeys: Reserved for the Aam Aadmi

Between the Bogeys: Reserved for the Aam Aadmi

Through a conversation with laborers from Jharkhand, we were able to get valuable anecdotes on one of our research topics, labor movement. In attempting to break the ice with the leader of the crew, it felt like a shy dance proposal from 7th grade. Once Chotey got talking, though, there was no looking back. He and his crew were contract laborers returning from Kharagpur, who had left their work because the company was paying them less (Rs.100/day) than what was originally promised (Rs.160/day), and because the accommodation provided was ‘not even fit for animals to live in’. As a result, work on the site had come to a complete halt, and the contractor was calling him endlessly to bring them back on the promised rate. They do this kind of work all over the country, from Orissa to U.P. to Kerala, sometimes for rates as high as Rs. 250/day in the metros. His family owned land and everyone except him were farmers, but he found it more lucrative to do this work and because there was already enough help. We exchanged numbers before parting, and I promised to inform him of any jobs I came across in Mumbai.

An exchange with a Bihari student who was studying in Patna gave an insight into the mindset of the locals, and a possible explanation for the lawlessness that has so often plagued the state. While we hesitated in sitting on the footstep of the door since there was a notice suggesting a fine of Rs.500 and or/imprisonment, he coolly sat there and stated that ‘rules don’t count for anything’. He also claimed that almost none of the locals on the train traveled with a ticket. The chain to stop the train, supposed to be used only in case of an emergency, is used frequently if the train is not expected to stop close to their village.

View From the Train

View From the Train

On the train we also met the underbelly of India in the form of a 10 year old beggar, Ajay. As he approached us, Ajay’s detached eyes provoked us to talk to him. Upon enquiry we learnt that various beggar mafias participate in an unofficial auction for deploying their kids on various rail routes. Railway police officials are bribed by various gangs for their tacit approval to conduct such an illegal and inhuman activity. Ajay accumulates approximately INR 200 daily, the majority of which goes to his supervisors. Whatever he saves is spent on whiteners, his preferred beverage. He told us that he despised schooling and that he does not intend to work in order to earn as he doesn’t mind the life he leads. This heartbreaking narrative prepared us for the many tales of suffering we heard in Bihar.

Ajay

Ajay


[i] Dial 139. We have used this service extensively and deem it to be excellent. Another feather in the railways’ cap

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