August in Uttrakhand is a wet, exuberant month, to paraphrase the iconic opening line of The God of Small Things. The Kosi river running through Ramnagar, lives up to its flood-prone reputation. It is swollen and angry, the muddy brown waters fiercely sweeping up everything in its way. The trees look like they have received a fresh coat of green. The rain makes the terrain’s vegetation boisterous and disorderly, spilling out of the forests skirting the roads. Earthworms squiggle cheerfully. Villagers despair. The famed wildlife hides deep inside the reserve.
But the truth is that our trip to Corbett with the extended family during the Independence Day weekend was a washout because of the rains, cancelled trains and our friend Murphy. There was much “unintended slumming,” as a friend put it, including close encounters with three railway stations, the details of which I present below:
By Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Old Delhi: Surrounded by Shah Jahan’s magnificent Red Fort and the Mughal era ambience of Chandni Chowk, in Delhi’s most touristy area, lies what is probably the filthiest railway station of any metropolitan city in the world. There are many places in the country connected to the capital city only by trains coming to Old Delhi. Yet, it is a sight of utter and callous neglect. The platforms are narrow and a surge of alighting passengers walks right into the ones waiting to depart. There was no lift as far as I could see for older passengers. The tracks look, without exaggeration, like half the city’s garbage and sewage is dumped onto them. The stench made us want to turn tail and go by road, which we would have done except that road travel did not agree with some people.
Ramnagar: This little town on the foothills of the lower Himalayas has one platform and two tracks but no overbridge to reach the other track. Passengers who want to get to a train that has arrived on Track 2 can either keep walking a long way to the absolute end of the platform where a tiny ramp connects it to the train. Or, encouraged by station officials, cross the track. Apart from being dangerous, it is supremely disgusting, given how human waste accumulates on the tracks.
Also Read | Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier articles
Moradabad: The brass trade has made it a prosperous and important town of western Uttar Pradesh, but its railway station is repelling to a visitor. Stray dogs out in full force. Dozens of urinating men. An all-pervasive stink. Vicious flies and mosquitoes. Persistent beggars. Milling crowds, many of whom have decided to camp on the station’s dirty floor. Deafening honks on the road outside. The worst of small town India. Speakers in seminars about India becoming a superpower need to make a field trip to Moradabad station. The NRIs in our group (who, by then, were ready to retire to the nearby mountains) found it hard to believe that Mumbai airport, where they arrived a few days ago, and this railway station belonged to the same country.
I spoke to an articulate and deeply concerned senior functionary of the Indian Railways who wished to remain anonymous. The conversation is below:
Who’s in charge of the maintenance of railway stations and why are they so brazenly not delivering?
Depending on the station, cleanliness is the responsibility of the health and sanitary inspector or the station master. Stations, especially in the north, remain dirty as officials are obviously not doing their job and no one is supervising. Also, the public using railway stations is hugely uncooperative and makes it as dirty as they can.
But how come the same Indian public uses the Delhi Metro, but the stations stay spick and span?
Do not compare with Delhi Metro. It has a sanitized entry and exit, that is, only ticket-bearing passengers can enter and leave the station. Railway stations are used by people who want to find shelter from rains and need toilets. In a democracy, it’s impossible to stop them.
Is there any motive for a station master to keep his station clean?
It’s his job and if there is an inspection, he’ll be questioned. You should watch them clean up when a senior officer is expected.
Why can’t we replicate the private participation that has beautified Vashi station (New Bombay), elsewhere? Can’t a Corbett resort take up the maintenance of Ramnagar railway station or a large Moradabad brass showroom do the same for that town and benefit from the publicity?
We have outsourced maintenance of stations to voluntary organizations and it has worked very well in some small stations in south India. Outsourcing to a private party is costly, and has been done experimentally.
Doesn’t the railways have adequate resources to clean the stations?
We do have the latest equipment and water jets to clean platforms. But there are other challenges—poor municipal water supply, for example. And of course, there’s the eternal problem of execution at ground level.
Railway officials go abroad on public money to study other railway systems. Has no one realised that stations can be tourist magnets? People come to see a station just for its architecture (for example, Gare de Lyon, Paris), or because a historical event has occurred there.
What about, for instance, prettifying Old Delhi station and giving it a Mughal theme?
I didn’t actually ask this last question, considering we were talking basics like cleaning litter from tracks. The official resignedly concluded that failure of execution at the field, poor inspection by seniors and an inherently undisciplined public are all equally responsible for the situation.
So, is anyone going to fix this or do ticket-buying customers of the Indian Railways accept that due to systemic failures, our stations will continue to remain appallingly dirty for another generation? The question hangs heavily in the air, like the stench in the stations.
Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com