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Indian Railways 'plans' privatisation amidst lackadaisical attitude towards general class

By Sandeep Pandey, B Ramakrishna Raju*
It appears that finally it is here. Soon after Union minister for railways Piyush Goyal said in a press conference that there are no plans to privatise Railways, either now or ever, it has been revealed that government is thinking of inviting private operators to run passenger trains on low congestion and tourist routes.
To begin with Indian Railways (IR) will give two trains to its own enterprise Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) which will get the custody of rakes in return for annual lease charges. This appears to be the beginning towards privatisation.
After all, IRCTC doesn’t have its own staff to run trains. It will most likely sub-contract a private company or hire personnel on contract to run the trains. However, given the failure of Air India divestment efforts one doesn’t know what fate awaits IR?
It must definitely be of concern to its 13.26 lakh employees who would have witnessed with consternation the fate of employees of Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways, both of which occupied second position in aviation sector at some time during their operation before going bankrupt. But if privatisation happens, IR would have itself to blame just like the Air India, which has been running in huge losses, even though the danger seems to have been averted temporarily.
The lackadaisical attitude of IR towards its passengers can best be seen in the general class where passengers sometimes have to travel like herds of animals. The general classes are situated at the front and rear of trains, essentially to take the brunt of any accident, even though most railway official will deny this.
If a passenger waiting at one end of the platform of any railway station finds it impossible to enter a general class coach s(he) may have to run to the other end of the platform to explore possibility of boarding coaches at the other end of train, by which time train may already have started moving.
One can imagine the travails of a poor family with women and small children in tow or on shoulders in addition to the luggage. The IR has a policy to sell unlimited tickets for general class before arrival of any train, and worse there is no senior citizen concession that is offered to even its elite passengers travelling in first class air conditioned coaches.
Cost of sleeper class ticket is only double whereas that of III AC, II AC and I AC is, respectively, 5, 7 and 9 times that of general class but there is a qualitative difference between travel in general and Sleeper class. One can get a full berth for oneself in sleeper class but there is no guarantee that one may even get a seat in general class.
AC class passengers get bedding, Rajdhani-Shatabdi passengers get snacks-food, services which are denied to general class passengers who probably need it most. While there have been improvements in the quality of other classes of railways it appears that IR mandarins have had no time to think about the quality of travel in general class.
For example, all AC trains have been run but no thought has been given to all general class mail/express trains on stressed routes. It is assumed that passenger trains are good enough for general class passengers. The entire idea of different classes in railways is antithetical to the idea of democracy. Railways must consider only a single class like in the Metro trains.
The coach for physically challenged persons is also located at one end of the train whereas it should be in the middle to make it convenient for such passengers to board their coach as they enter the platform.
In long distance trains filling of water for toilets in general as well as sleeper class is not a priority, unless someone complains, causing hardship to the passengers. Biotoilets are now being installed in trains. They release methane.
In a closed space methane can cause asphyxiation. There are 1,800 deaths reported every year inside sewer lines of sanitation workers because of asphyxiation. IR has no plans to handle this methane which is being released in air, contributing to global warming as well.
Trains are held up as they are about to enter platforms, sometimes for such long periods that passengers get down and start walking towards platforms. This often happens as one is entering Varanasi from the Jaunpur direction.
It is unclear why, when the platforms are vacant, the trains are held up. With ongoing computerisation of its various services, for arriving trains why a dynamic scheduling of platforms according to availability has not been put in place is a question to be asked.
On Lucknow Northern Railway station Platform numbers 1, 2, 5 and 6, ‘caution’ is in place for the last more than 8 months because of some repair/maintenance work which was to be done, implying trains cannot move at more than 5 km per hour while passing through the platforms. Even if the work might get done ‘caution’ is not removed immediately causing unnecessary delays for subsequent trains arriving on these platforms.
The food items provided by IRCTC are overcharged. The cost of a vegetarian meal is Rs 50 and tea is Rs 7 inside the train. Bearers will charge double the amount for meal and Rs 10 for tea invariably. When questioned they’ll reply that they have provided ‘paneer’ item which was not there in original menu and for the tea they expect the passenger to provide exact change.
Water under brand name ‘Rail Neer’ is sold at the same rate at which Pepsi and Coca Cola, respectively, sell Aquafina and Kinley brands. Why should IRCTC be in the business of selling bottled water at such exorbitant rate?
Before the general elections the taps on Varanasi railway station went dry in order to benefit the IRCTC-run water vending machines. 8% of the IRCTC income comes from selling water. It should be the responsibility of Indian Railways to provide potable drinking water for free to all its passengers.
The corruption indulged in by travelling ticket examiners is a ubiquitous problem. The wait listed passengers keep waiting and the vacant seats are sold. In Lucknow Mail, a daily overnight train from Lucknow to New Delhi, railway staff allows big white sacks belonging to courier services to be loaded in Sleeper class coaches even though they should go in luggage van.
Finally, a characteristic Indian Railway faux pas is available as testimony on Centre for Railway Information System developed indianrail.gov.in website. At every step as one negotiates this website one has to do mental addition or subtraction to get across a security feature, which may serve the purpose of improving maths literacy of the country, whereas most other such websites will have a captcha security feature to be cleared only once at the beginning.
Even if one just wants to know trains between two stations, an information easily available at other places, one has to go through this arithmetic exercise. Such unprofessional attitude is not going to help if it intends to avoid hurtling towards privatisation.
---
*Social activists based in UP and AP, respectively

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