One of the most absurd things that the Indian Railways announces in its annual ritual of budget presentation is its claim of introducing luxury instead of universalising basic amenities and safety for its passengers.
This year’s offer of luxury is what looks like a swank coach with a brand-name - Anubhuti- that will first be run on short distance trains such as Shatabdi and then to Rajdhani and finally to long haul trains.
Anubhuti, which translates into something like sensual experience, perhaps bordering on the erotic, has quite few a few plug-in offers that ordinary passengers cannot see - “plush upholstery, designer toilets, diffused lighting, LCD screens, better ergonomics and personalised pantry.”
For passengers seeking luxury at a hefty premium, Anbhuti will soon turn out to be a dream that has gone horribly wrong because you cannot erect an Antilla on the foundation of a slum tenement. The so-called club-class Anubhuti coaches will soon get dirty, rat and cockroach infested, stinking and ultimately a possible health-hazard. Because that is how the rest of the Railway coaches are. And that is what past attempts at luxury have taught us.
The last luxury offering from the Railways was a non-stop, point-to-point super-fast train called “Duranto” when Mamata Banerjee was at the helm of affairs. One of the Duranto trains in the south was to Thiruvananthapuram from Chennai, which never took off till recently and when it finally chugged out, it turned out to be a horror for its passengers who paid quite a premium for the extra speed (a saving of only 2-3 hours though).
People who walked in expecting at least basic amenities were greeted by compartments that were old, grimy, and infested with cockroaches and rats. For extra speed, many of them had to trade their sleep besides paying more. Ironically, Duranto turned out to be a “durantham” (disaster in Malayalam) for almost all.
Does this happen only in luxury compartments?
No, according to regular travellers, it is the norm in second class, second class AC and even first class compartments; but they don’t care because they know what is in it for them. They choose trains because they are cheaper than flights and the latter do not connect all cities. A few unwanted pests and rodents are not a big problem for them.
But when it happens in luxury compartments, announced with enormous hype and hoopla, they are outraged because it is not what they have paid for.
But can the Railways help?
No, because that is what makes Indian Railways what it is. Everything is the same except the looks. Looks do not change the character. Can you build a spa in a cesspool of human excreta?
Recently a south Indian actress wrote about the horror she went through while travelling in an AC first class compartment in an overnight train: the same story - rodents, cockroaches and stinking blankets. She hadn’t travelled in trains for a decade and had hoped, perhaps misinformed by the budget speeches, that things would have improved.
She said, things had in fact worsened. Apparently, there were rats everywhere, at times even crawling over her.
The reason is fundamental - the scant attention that the ministry and officials pay to the upkeep of the trains that mostly serve the cattle-class. Even a simple visit to a station such as Chennai is a huge health hazard - what greets one at the station is a shocking pool of human excreta on the tracks which the manual labourers walk through barefoot. For people who are unexposed to this ghastly scene, it is a horror of a lifetime.
Similarly there is hardly any attention to the cleaning of the compartments - the cleaning yards are in abandoned places infested with pets and reptiles. And the water they use is from sources that are filled with sewage.
This is the infrastructure on which they attempt luxuries such as Duranto and Anubhuti. Will they create a new line of cleaning and sanitation systems for Anubhuti? Is it even possible? Do they have separate safety standards for these coaches? If not, doesn’t the attempted plushness also come with the inherent safety-hazards arising out of negligence and poor infrastructure?
Why struggle with such gimmicks in an era when the ticket prices for such bogus luxury is no different from the air-fares of no-frill carriers?
Is there an alternative for Bansal and his Babus?
Of course, yes. They should stop dressing up the dirty Indian trains and fooling people. Instead, they should make all the trains at least good enough for basic travel - adequate water, reasonable toilets, cleaner berths and linen, and most importantly, freedom from pests and rodents.
And they should certainly forget indulgences that offer sensual experience such as Anubhuti unless they are looking for some lucrative contracts.
Does it make any sense at all to suffer 14 hours of Anubhuti if one could make it in one hour at say, an extra Rs. 500-1000?
Updated Date: Feb 27, 2013 14:13 PM