Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Bhopal: If you want to see how a well-functioning system is destroyed instead of improved, head to Bhopal’s Habibganj railway station, which is India’s first "private railway station." While degradation of infrastructure is usually associated with government facilities in India, the case of the Habibganj station is the opposite.
In 2008, the 40-year-old station became the first ISO-certified railway station. According to the railway website, it even had free Wi-Fi and was awarded the Best Tourist Friendly Station trophy by the Indian Railways in 2015.
Until a few years ago, it was one of the best examples of good design and aesthetics, passenger amenities, and cleanliness. Then, it derailed, and how!
Reason: the NDA government’s concentrated push on privatisation, but more on that in a bit.
Madhya Pradesh will see polling for the Lok Sabha election in four stages — on 29 April, 6 May, 12 May, and 19 May. Bhopal's citizens will cast their vote on 12 May.
Perils of privatisation
In March 2017, the Indian Railway Stations Development Corporation Limited handed the station over to Bhopal-based Bansal Pathways Habibganj Private Limited to redevelop it as a world-class railway station and maintain and operate it for eight years, besides a 45-year lease on the station land.
Signboards such as these have been placed all across the Habibganj railway station in Bhopal. Manish Chandra Mishra/101Reporters
Since then, all that has happened is that the once-efficient and spick-and-span station is now a jumbled, dug-up place, inside out. Today, passengers have to struggle even for basic amenities, like seating, coach positioning guides, escalators for the differently abled, and drinking water.
Over the last five years, there have been several such privatisations by the Narendra Modi-led government. According to data released as on 28 March, 2019 by the Department of Investment and Public Assets, the government has sold off over Rs 2 lakh crore worth of PSU assets, a staggering 58 percent of all disinvestment since 1991, to dress up its books.
And Habibganj, from winning awards to becoming an unrecognisable version of itself, is the perfect poster child of privatisation gone kaput.
The Habibganj redevelopment project was divided into two parts — Rs 100 crore for giving the station a facelift and improving passenger amenities, and Rs 350 crore for creating new commercial opportunities.
The deadline for the first part is July 2019, though the original contract had kept it as 31 December, 2018, while the deadline for construction of commercial facilities is 2022.
However, two months after the handover, the station slipped in the cleanliness ranking from 16 to 51, as per a report released by then railway minister Suresh Prabhu in May 2017.
With a daily traffic of 48 trains, the station sees a daily footfall of 25,000 people, according to media reports. During the summer vacation and peak tourist season, the daily footfall rises to 35,000, which, given the station’s present degraded condition, is a recipe for chaos.
From utopia to dystopia
It’s a sweltering afternoon when we arrive at the station. Passengers are waiting for the Kushinagar Express on platform 4. With no overhead covering, they jostle under whatever little shade a partially constructed foot overbridge offers. Others squat on the overbridge staircase, making it difficult for those wanting to get onto the platform.
Ayush Sharma, a final year CA student, has been commuting from Vidisha to Habibganj for the last three years. “It breaks my heart to see this once-beautiful station in this state now. I don’t know what it will look like after the private company finishes with it, but for the last two years, it’s been a nightmare, especially for daily commuters like me. Platform 4 doesn’t have a single bench to sit on, so we wait on platform 1 till the train arrives.”
Recalling the good old days, Ayush rattles off all the amenities the station had — escalators, lifts, drinking water, shade, and seats, among other things, on all platforms. “The company should have at least preserved the basic amenities during redevelopment.”
Santosh Rao, another passenger waiting for the Kushinagar Express, wonders what the need for privatisation was when the station was already doing so well. “Every day, when a train arrives at a platform, it is complete chaos. A big accident is just waiting to happen,” he warns.
Regulars reveal that, aside from not keeping basic facilities intact, the private company was also caught in a controversy over levying exorbitant parking charges at the station — it had introduced a monthly pass system at Rs 5,000 for two-wheelers and Rs 16,000 for four-wheelers; before privatisation, the monthly pass used to cost Rs 120 for two-wheelers and Rs 300 for four-wheelers.
After passengers held protests, in which the local Congress and NSUI members joined, the company reduced the cost to Rs 995 for two-wheelers and Rs 5,990 per month for four-wheelers. The rates were reduced after the railway board intervened in the matter. They are, however, still way higher than the earlier ones. NSUI spokesperson Suhrid Tiwari alleged that the private company was “looting passengers in the name of parking fees”.
Tiwari says exorbitant parking fees, however, seem small compared to the environmental damage the redevelopment work has caused. “The private company has dug 60 feet underneath, because of which the groundwater source near the station has dried up. This has become a big election issue for Bhopal.”
Satish Nayak, a local activist with an organisation’s consumer and human rights protection committee, claims that due to the construction work, more than 200 bore wells near the station have dried up. The private company has allegedly set up a dozen pumps to remove groundwater during digging work, and these pumps have been running 24x7 for a year. Nayak adds he plans to move the high court and NGT over this.
Construction work at the station has posed difficulties for commuters. Manish Chandra Mishra/101Reporters
Is the private firm already throwing its weight around?
Meanwhile, the company says the work is on schedule. “We have almost finished work on two subways,” claims Abu Asif, project in-charge of Bansal Pathways. “The Itarsi-end subway is 98 percent complete, while the Bhopal-end one is 80 percent done. About 65 percent work on the east building and 80 percent on the new west building, too, has been completed, as has 40 percent of air concourse and platform resurfacing work.”
Bhopal MP Alok Sanjar backs these claims. “I have visited the station several times, and construction work is going on smoothly. The divisional railway manager and company officials have assured me that they will complete the work before the deadline,” he says.
Sanjar adds that the pace of the construction had got affected after a tea stall vendor had gone to court over a dispute with the company. “However, I am informed that the matter is now resolved.”
Tea stall vendor Seema Agarwal had alleged that the construction company asked her to pay 300 percent more fees than what she was paying to the railways. When she refused, her application for licence renewal was rejected on 18 June, 2018, and she was asked to vacate the stall in a week. Agarwal had further alleged that the company started construction near her stall, and it was about to be demolished. Hence, she had moved court, which, while directing the railways to reconsider her application, asked her to move a fresh one for licence renewal.
“Railways is monitoring the construction,” says Shobhan Chaudhuri, divisional railway manager. “I know that many amenities are absent, but I assure passengers that they won’t suffer for much longer. This is a transition phase. In one or two months, we will provide all basic facilities. We will also penalise the company if it doesn’t complete the work in time.”
Misery all around
However, it’s not just the passengers who are unhappy with all these developments. The staff members at Habibganj station, too, have been miserable since the construction began.
A government railway police personnel says the police station at the railway station doesn’t have a toilet. “In the absence of a proper facility on the premises, we have no option but to defecate in the open.”
The privatisation of different sections of the Railways has irked its employees’ union as well. President of All India Railwaymen’s Federation Rakhal Das Gupta says, “Privatisation isn’t beneficial for the public or railway staff in the least. We have been opposing the government’s every attempt at privatisation, which will ultimately lead to the exploitation of railway staff and passengers.”
(The author is a Bhopal-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters)