Ferrying almost eight million passengers a day over 376km of track across the city, the Mumbai suburban railway network is one of the busiest public rail transit systems in the world. It’s also one of the deadliest. Data released by the Mumbai railway police commissionerate shows that 3,014 people died on the city’s railway tracks in 2017, averaging just above eight people a day. Another 3,345 were injured. According to a report by non-profit data journalism initiative IndiaSpend, 18,050 commuters have died on the Mumbai trains in the past five years; that’s almost 10 per day. This is despite several high-profile safety and infrastructure initiatives launched by successive railway ministers in recent years.
“If this happened in any other country, the railway officials would have criminal cases filed against them for negligence," says 47-year-old railway safety activist and self-proclaimed Gandhian Samir Zaveri, sitting on the floor of his office, a small corner room of his third floor apartment in South Mumbai. Files containing court documents and right to information (RTI) applications take up every available surface, and a collection of hard-bound law books lines the only bookshelf in the room. A double amputee who lost his legs in a train accident in 1989, Zaveri has spent the past decade fighting to ensure a safer commute for Mumbai’s residents.
He has used public interest litigation (PIL) and writ petitions to champion commuter safety and force the railways to invest in emergency medical care for accident victims. His endless RTI queries—over 300 and counting since he started in 2006—have led to two CBI inquiries and disciplinary action against over 50 railway protection force (RPF) officers and railways officials on charges of corruption. Tenacious and extraordinarily resourceful, Zaveri is a constant thorn in the side of the city’s railway authorities.
This has occasionally made him a target of harassment and intimidation. He’s had false cases filed against him and received multiple death threats. But the perennially smiling activist remains unfazed. “See, the railways are not bothered about the safety of passengers," he says. “A citizen shouldn’t have to go to court and face down threats to get them to do their basic duty. But if that’s what it takes, then that’s what I’ll do."
A fateful crossroads
The son of a jewellery store owner, Zaveri grew up in the town of Patan in Gujarat, where he studied in a Gujarati medium school before dropping out to work at his uncle’s pearl trading business in Mumbai. In 1989, with the business doing well, the family bought an apartment in a newly constructed building in Borivali. Zaveri would often make the trek up north from his uncle’s home in Walkeshwar to oversee work on the flat.
“It was a rainy night in September and I was going from west to east at the railway crossing," he remembers, narrating the story in a matter-of-fact tone. Clutching his umbrella in the heavy rain, Zaveri tried to run across the tracks as a train approached the crossing. “The train was quite far, but my foot hit something in the dark and I fell. Before I understood what was happening, the train had gone over my legs."
Passersby bundled the bleeding and unconscious Zaveri into a rickshaw and took him to the nearby Bhagwati Hospital. After receiving emergency care, he was shifted to Hurkisondas hospital in Girgaon, where he spent three months in recovery. Despite the loss of both his legs, Zaveri refused to let the tragedy dampen his spirits. He learnt to walk on prosthetics—provided for free by Jaipur-based NGO Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS)—and was soon running a successful jewellery business. But he never forgot the kindness of the strangers who saved his life, and resolved to do everything he could to give back to society.
His initial forays into the world of activism were tentative and small-scale. He started handing out BMVSS visiting cards and brochures to differently-abled commuters on the locals—many of whom were also train accident victims—and helped them avail of free prosthetics and other support services. Always willing to lend an ear or a helping hand, Zaveri quickly became popular with his fellow commuters, who would approach him any time they had a problem. “I started getting calls from the relatives of travellers who had gone missing, so I’d go along to the police stations and hospitals to help with the search," he says. “You go to the nearest hospital and ask at every ward if a railway accident case had come in. They might say that a dead body came yesterday, so you go the morgue to try and identify it. I’ve seen bodies piled up on top of each other, people walking over corpses to look for their loved ones. It’s terrible."
In 2006, Zaveri realized that if he really wanted to make a difference, he needed to focus his efforts on accident prevention. Using the then recently enacted RTI Act, he began gathering all the information he could on train accidents in the city. He also started digging into what the railways were doing to prevent accidents, and to help the victims when they did occur. “In 2004, the Bombay high court had passed an order instructing the railways to construct a boundary wall along the tracks and build fences between platforms, as well as to provide medical care to victims," he says. “But I found that the authorities had not properly complied with any of these directions."
Zaveri used this information to file a contempt petition against the railways in the Bombay high court in 2008, alleging that they failed miserably in ensuring commuters’ safety. He followed that up in the same year with a public interest litigation seeking further measures to reduce railway deaths and provide emergency medical aid to the victims, especially during the “golden hour" when medical intervention can be crucial and life-saving. “When I filed the PIL, the railway officials laughed at me," says Zaveri, who shut down his jewellery business to devote time to activism, but continues to work as a part-time stock market analyst. “They thought I just wanted to get some money for myself."
Full steam ahead
They wouldn’t laugh for long. Zaveri’s efforts led to the establishment of a pilot emergency medical room at Dadar in 2011, which provided emergency medical aid to over a thousand people in the first year alone. Today, 13 suburban railway stations have emergency medical rooms, and just this month railway authorities announced that they will be setting up 73 more. Other successes include a Bombay high court directive to ensure the availability of ambulances at railway stations, and an order to take accident victims to private hospitals at the railways’ expense if there is no government hospital within 5km of the accident site. But each victory has come after years of court appearances and petitions, with the railways fighting Zaveri at every step, and dragging its feet on implementation even after multiple high court orders. “It just shows that the rail authorities are not at all serious about customer safety," says Zaveri. “On paper, everything is great. But in reality, there’s no action."
A regular presence in the offices of the city’s top railway and RPF officers, Zaveri’s persistence and friendly nature won him the grudging admiration of many railway employees. Before long, some of them were passing on information about other instances of corruption and wrongdoing. Zaveri diligently follows up each lead through a never-ending stream of letters and RTI queries, trying every trick in the book to find evidence of misconduct. He’s read so many letters from railways authorities that he says he’s now developed a sixth sense that tells him when they’re hiding something. In 2014, he discovered that an RPF officer in Mulund was illegally renting out railway land for private events and then pocketing the cash. Around ₹ 8.4 lakh was recovered from the officer after Zaveri informed the then railways minister Suresh Prabhu of the scam.
In another instance, he filed a PIL about RPF personnel at the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus in Kurla extorting ₹ 100 each from passengers trying to get a seat to the unreserved compartments of outstation trains. Those who refused to pay were not allowed to enter the coach, and even physically assaulted. Zaveri’s intervention led to a CBI inquiry and the eventual arrest of RPF inspector Arvind Kumar Yadav. Fourteen other personnel were chargesheeted.
But his most high-profile triumph came via a whistleblower. In 2008, RPF constable B.R. Jogdankar had filed a complaint against a superior who was running a fake bail bond scam at Kurla station. RPF personnel would nab trespassers and take them to a fake “court", where a colleague posing as a magistrate would fine them ₹ 500 each. “The department punished Jogdankar, saying that the complaint was false," says Zaveri. “He was on the verge of being dismissed when he asked me for help. I gathered evidence using RTI and filed a writ petition in court (in 2010)."
The investigation was handed over to the CBI, which discovered that the multi-crore scam had been running for years. An RPF inspector was among the five dismissed from service in connection with the case. Most importantly, at least from Zaveri’s perspective, Jogdankar would no longer be punished for his honesty. The constable finished his tenure, and has retired to a quiet life of farming.
Trouble on the tracks
Zaveri’s crusade against corruption has not only earned him plaudits and allies, but also some powerful enemies within the railways and the RPF. When veiled threats failed to deter him, his adversaries turned to more drastic measures. In 2011, he was accused of kidnapping a hawker from Thane railway station. In a different court, the same advocate also filed a case accusing him of fraud and falsifying documents. The Bombay high court eventually threw out both the cases, but not before Zaveri had spent a difficult six months worrying about what would happen to his wife and children if he landed up in jail.
“But in the end, all these false cases turned out to be a blessing in disguise," he says with characteristic sangfroid, as his 18-year-old son walks in with cups of freshly brewed tea. Zaveri was so stressed out that he found it difficult to sleep. “But instead of taking sleeping pills, I used that time to read. I read all the law books, Supreme Court judgements, the Constitution, everything. Now I’m very well versed in the relevant laws and that has helped me be even more successful in my efforts."
It’s this ability to see the light at the end of even the darkest tunnel that has allowed Zaveri to sustain his activism for so long, and to do so without giving in to cynicism or despair. His faith in the constitution and the rule of law remains unshakable. And despite all the corruption that he has exposed, and the hardships he has faced, he still believes in the essential goodness of the people on the other side of the table.
“When he talks to me, the third sentence is always ‘there are good people ma’am, you just have to find them’. Somehow there’s always someone who comes forward to help him," says journalist Sucheta Dalal, who founded the financial literacy non-profit Moneylife Foundation with her husband in 2010. Dalal met Zaveri in 2013 when he was chosen as one of the winners of the Mumbai Heroes awards, an initiative by city newspaper Mumbai Mirror. Zaveri gave the ₹ 50,000 cash prize to Dalal’s foundation to set up a railway safety helpline, which ran for three years before shutting down in 2016. “He’s extraordinarily courageous, to the extent that you worry about him every time he plunges into something new," she says. “But he doesn’t let anything hold him back."
Zaveri laughs off the suggestion that there is anything at all extraordinary about him. In his head, he’s doing what any public-minded citizen would do. “I’ve seen what happens to families when they lose a loved one or a breadwinner in a rail accident," he says. “Even if I can save one such life because of what I do, that’s good enough for me. Every time I sit down and re-evaluate what I’m doing, that’s what keeps me going."