I travel a lot by train in India. I have been using Shatabdi Express trains in two different parts of India lately. On the Southern Railway route, it has been the Chennai-Bengaluru and Chennai-Bengaluru-Mysuru Shatabdi trains, all of which provide a ‘No Food’ option in addition to the usual veg or non-veg. As per observations and chats with the passengers and crew, about 30% of the passengers on these trains opt for the "No Food" option. The savings are substantial, Rs200-250 plus GST, and for half that amount of money you can pick up much better meals and beverages on the platform at Chennai, Bengaluru and Mysuru.
On the Northern Railway route, it has been the New Delhi-Ludhiana and the New-Delhi Amritsar Shatabdi trains, which do not provide the "No Food" option. As a passenger you are forced to opt for veg or non-veg, wherein breakfast is tolerable but dinner is most certainly inedible, and not worth the Rs200-250 one pays, plus the GST charged. It is estimated that 30% or more of the passengers return the food untouched.
The quality of hygiene and food handling is suspect on both trains, though marginally better in the South, and as for the oil content - it is rumoured that the excess oil used is as a standby for the generators roaring away at either end of the trains. I have enough photographs of water being stored in toilets and food being stored next to garbage bins; in addition, plastic crockery and cutlery used is given a ‘dry-cleaning’ using a dirty rag within the line of sight of the passengers.
All this and more, generate among the catering and serving staff nothing but contempt for the passengers being force-fed this swill on the Northern Railway routes.Public grievances result in catering staff, who get the phone numbers presumably from pliant railway officials, calling up and threatening this writer. Life goes on. Meanwhile, Indian Railways continues to collect compulsory food charges, despite multiple announcements about making food optional on these trains.
One big reason is that the corruption in catering services keeps the senior babus well supplied with good food. I have also seen what they are served in their homes as well as in their saloons and during travel.
Game of Free Insurance?
‘Free’ insurance is provided to all who book Indian Railway tickets online through IRCTC. This costs the Indian Railways 92 paise per passenger, of which there are millions who book online over IRCTC every day: one estimate puts it at about 2 million tickets booked online every day. That's about Rs1.8 lakh paid as insurance premium on our behalf to a variety of private insurance companies every day, about making it about Rs75 crore per annum. The payout is supposed to be Rs10 lakh per death, if claimed, if nominee details are filled out. Otherwise, there is no payout unless legal heir is established. Assuming a figure of about 300-500 insurance liable deaths per annum on Indian Railways, that is about Rs5 crore at best.
And please be aware of how difficult it will be to collect. If at all.
The rest, about Rs70 crore, is money for jam. But even that is not enough!
The trick here is to get the passenger to place the nominee details on the policy. IRCTC and therefore the Indian Railways have an interesting trick here - instead of collecting the nominee details at the time of the passenger making the booking, they wait till a working day later, after the charting is done and the waiting list, seat or berth number is allotted, not just is confirmed, to provide the contact details of the passengers, to the insurance companies, who then wait one more working day to send an email to the passenger to collect the nominee details. By this time, unless the journey is more than two days-and-a-half, the journey is over and providing or collecting nominee details is of no use to anybody.
Assuming about 20% of the travellers are on waiting lists that get confirmed (tatkal, quotas and more make up the rest), it means that 20% of passengers get the message to add a nominee AFTER the journey is over. God help them (or their nominees) if they suffer an accident in this period.
Where does that collected money go? That is also why no government insurance company is in the list, by the way! The joys of privatisation of insurance!
No safe exit at Delhi station
Bridges collapsing over railways lines has been covered in some detail lately. The truth is that railway passengers are like sacrificial lambs being thrown to the wolves. A trip to the New Delhi railway station teaches you so much more about the attitude that the Indian Railways has towards it passengers than what any amount of expensive consultants or foreign trips or grandiose plans can.
It is fascinating to see the multiple reasons why and how life is made difficult for pedestrians and commuters at New Delhi railway station.
# The "local trains", or EMUs as they are known here, are brought on to island platforms in the middle instead of the more easily accessible Platform 16 and 1 at the edges and closer to the Metro and the buses respectively.
# The walking path from Gate No 1 and 5 of New Delhi Metro Rail underground station to the escalators and entry to the New Delhi railway station is heavily barricaded by Delhi Police as well as broken pavement, making it impossible to walk safely.
# Exits from all the escalators and stairs are heavily blocked by auto-rickshaws and black-yellow cabs whose drivers are apparently exempted from any of the NO PARKING rules applied to private cars and cabs.
# The embark and disembark points for buses are about a kilometre away from the platforms on each side, Ajmeri Gate and Pahargunj, and as expected, soaked in filth and human waste.
# Of course, the innermost lanes on both sides are "reserved" for the minor VIPs; the bigger VVIPs and VIPs and Railway people have their own "State Entry Road". Which is where, by the way, at one time there used to be a cycle parking. Now there is no cycle parking.
# On the Ajmeri Gate side, the entry for drop-and-go has been barricaded shut, so people are forced to enter the pay-and-park area-which is where they end up if not careful about using the other entry lane meant for premium parking which is even costlier!
It really does not matter to people which formation is in power, nor are they bothered about whether Indian Railways is under the Ministry of Railways that is stuck in a colonial mind set. Delhi Metro, which gives up all responsibility at its turnstiles, Delhi Government (selected) which appears to be at war with Delhi Government (elected), Municipal Corp of Delhi (MCD) or New Delhi Municipal Corp (NDMC), which appear to be busy setting up their games or any of the hundreds of sponsored touts hanging around.
It is just that the same people spot that other railway station access and exit points in other parts of India appear to have improved while the Delhi options have come crashing down.
The fault lines of India are in Delhi. Too much mis-governance, too little progress, too many "authorities" cancelling each other out.
And it is all visible in the way we run our railway stations in Delhi, for, 99% of the people who use the facilities, only to be told how hundreds of crores of rupees have been wasted again.
(Veeresh Malik is an activist from Delhi, who continues to explore several things in life.)