I switched to flying because I began to dislike the Indian railways for many reasons. The lack of cleanliness, lack of hygienically prepared food, and the teeming crowd put me off. Was I becoming a filthy bourgeois? I don’t think so. I think I’m becoming old. The spirit is young but the body is old, to paraphrase Jesus. There was a time I tolerated the filth as part of the Indian mindset: India (with some exceptional areas) is a large spittoon, a stinking toilet and an immense garbage bin. It was also the time I treated the unhygienic food in the Indian railways with a dose of whisky. My young body probably thrived on the odd mix. I loved to watch the crowd and its absolutely irrational behaviour. It sustained my own irrationality.
Official assignments don’t entitle me to flights as I’m only a teacher – “the backbone of the nation,” as a friend of mine teases me unceasingly. One such official assignment obliged me to travel by train all the way from Delhi to Kochi by train. I was entitled to second class AC fare, according to my designation at my school. “Can you travel by 3 tier AC?” was the question put to me by the economically constrained boss. I had pre-empted the sleeper class offer by mentioning that the month of May was too hot for such a journey. I was supposed to attend the seminar from 21 to 24 May 2012.
There was no way I could get a reserved ticket however much I tried at the internet site of the Indian railways. The site seemed to have some ingenious ways of blocking all attempts to reserve a ticket until the available berths were exhausted. And the exhaustion came in the first ten minutes of the opening time. The booking begins at 8 am and the berths are sold out by 8.10 am. The stipulated booking period of 90 days before the journey, that is.
I’m speaking of the Kerala-bound trains from Delhi. In December 2011 I booked a train ticket for a colleague of mine by the Kerala Express using the Tatkal scheme. She had to make an unplanned journey. I booked the ticket. It took quite a while for the site to accept my order. Finally it condescended to give a confirmed ticket. But once the payment was made, it took five minutes for the ticket to come. And when it did, it was in the waiting list. The lady travelled with that waiting list ticket by making some arrangement with another passenger whom she knew, only to be told that her ticket had been cancelled by the Railways and she had to pay a fine for making an unauthorised journey. She called me up from the train. I said the cash had been charged to my credit card account in the name of the Indian Railways. She paid the fine, however, and continued her journey since she had no other option before the TTE. A day after she had completed her journey I received an SMS from the Indian Railways site on my mobile phone that my ticket was cancelled and that my money was refunded to my credit card account. I wasn’t surprised. Such things are part of India’s dimension as the spittoon, the toilet, and the garbage bin, all of which are most visible from the train.
When I couldn’t get a ticket for myself however much I tried, I decided to make a study of the situation. I went through the Railways reservation status. I discovered that all the AC class tickets were overbooked. It was in the waiting list every single day, whether it is Rajdhani or the lesser trains. But there were more than hundred tickets available in the sleeper class coaches.
The Malayalam newspapers have reported time and again about the thefts in Kerala bound trains, stating explicitly that most of them seem to be taking place in connivance with the Railway authorities. I can now connect the links, though I may be wrong. It has become clear to the Railway authorities that the Keralites are rich enough to travel in the AC class. So they decided to loot them.
I am leftist by political inclination. Yet I began to think if the railway was privatised would such a situation arise? Wouldn’t the private player simply increase the number of AC coaches in order to make greater profits and provide better services? Think of how the phone call rates came down beyond our imagination when the telecom services were privatised? [Just one example]
Well, I can still be leftist and argue that the government can itself do the same thing: increase the facilities and earn more money instead of looting the passengers. But looting is more natural to politicians, I guess.
Or, looting is more natural to the Indian mindset?
Visit a shop, for example. Even a Reliance outlet.