Torture trains

Published : Jan 04, 2008 00:00 IST

At the Mira Road station in suburban Mumbai. On an average, four people die and four are injured in accidents on railway tracks every day in the city. - PICTURES: PAUL NORONHA

At the Mira Road station in suburban Mumbai. On an average, four people die and four are injured in accidents on railway tracks every day in the city. - PICTURES: PAUL NORONHA

Residents of Mumbais suburbs commute by train, risking their lives, but the Railways do little to improve the situation.

At the Mira

EVERY morning, residents of Vasai-Virar and other north-western suburbs of Mumbai leave home, prepared to face a stampede at the local railway station. People from these suburbs have to battle hurtling mobs just to get into a train. The Virar fast train instils fear in most commuters, but they have no option but to take it.

As a train approaches the platform of a railway station, there is a mad scramble to get in. But there is no space to breathe inside. People are packed like sardines. There is no option but to hang precariously from the doors, and even the windows. One slip of the hand and they could fall off the train. Some others climb on top of the bogies; they have to dodge the electric wires passing overhead every now and then. Inside the crammed train, tempers fly high and fights are routine. Some reach work with bruises on their bodies.

A few do not make it to work. They fall off trains along the way. Four people die and another four are injured in accidents on railway tracks every day. Around 824 people fall off trains in Mumbai every year. These accidents are avoidable. All the Railways have to do is expand services so that people do not have to make such hazardous travel. But the public sector giant comes up with more excuses than solutions.

So every year on December 10, Human Rights Day, commuters from Mumbais north-western suburbs hold a protest to demand better services. This year, they called for a boycott of trains. The peaceful protest turned rowdy with commuters squatting on the tracks. Later, a few commuters at Bhayander pulled the chains inside the trains, pushed passengers out and shut the doors. A little more disruptive than the push and shove that is part of their daily routine.

There is criminal negligence of commuters problems. To make us suffer such inhuman conditions of travel is a violation of basic human rights. Every day, people fall off trains. They should stop treating us like animals, says K.K. Prakasan of the Pravaas Adhikar Andolan Samiti (Commuters Rights Association). The commuters want trains from Virar (the last station on the Western Railway commuter line) every five minutes. At present, there is a train every 10 minutes. And, there is no other mode of transport. There are no direct buses, and hence commuting by road takes almost five times more time than by train.

Mumbai has a magnetic influence on migrants across the country. People come to this city with dreams of a better life. But soon they realise that there is no glitter, only grime, in the countrys commercial capital. The State government has promised a Mumbai that will look like Shanghai (in China). It talks about providing helipads and flyovers, but cannot provide basic facilities for its six million commuters.

Murad Ali, 23, left Kolkata for Mumbai in search of his dream. But life was not easy in Mumbai. The only place he could afford to live was in a distant suburb. Travelling from his home to his office was a nightmare battling the crowds and hanging from the train. Ali was so shocked by Mumbais torture trains that he joined the Pravaas Adhikar Andolan Samiti. He was writing a script for a play about a young man who fell off a train and died. Ironically, he was scripting his own life. Ali fell off the train and died on October 23, 2007, while on his way home from work. He left behind a young wife and a nine-month-old daughter.

Sadly, Murad became the victim of his own drama, says his friend Sadiq Basha. While we were waiting for the railway police to bring his body, we saw several other accident victims being brought to the hospital. It was almost like a war zone, he remembers.

Commuting at peak

A train accident reduced Mohammed Raza Sheikh, 27, from a businessman to a hawker. Sheikh fell off a train in March 2003. I was holding on to a pole inside, but the crowd was so huge it pushed me out. All our savings went in paying for my medical expenses. I had to shut down my garment manufacturing workshop on Grant Road, says Sheikh. Now I roam the markets in Mira Road selling plastic. I used to earn Rs.6,000 a month. Now, I barely manage to get Rs.50 to 100 a day. Sheikh does not travel by train anymore.

Right from 6 a.m. to noon, the platforms at these stations are packed. I reach my workplace late every day, Srinivas B. tells this correspondent, while waiting for his train at the Mira Road station. There are people hanging on to the train with just one hand, resisting the crowd pushing from inside. The train starts at Virar, but by the time it reaches the third station it is so packed you just cant get in. People form groups in the train and wont let you in unless you are part of their gang. There is so much anger and aggression. I have been punched.

After Srinivas reached his office, he called to tell me that a man fell off the train he was travelling in. The train ran over his legs, he told me.

When confronted with these questions, railway officials keep passing the buck. I agree the situation is very bad. But daily operations are not our job. Ask the Western Railway, says P.C. Sehgal, Managing Director of the Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation, which is implementing the World Bank-funded Mumbai Urban Transport Project to expand public transport in the metropolis. He admits that though two new tracks have been laid, they will not be fully utilised until an additional 157 rakes are added. At present, only one rake is on the rails. In three years, all the rakes will be on the tracks. It took three years to finalise the tenders, he admitted.

Year 2007 has been a landmark one for the Western Railway, says Pranai Prabhakar, the Western Railways Chief Public Relations Officer. We have added 40 new trains on the BorivaliVirar sector, equal to the increase in services over the past 11 years. There are now 309 trains in this sector, and we plan to add 40 new services in January 2008. The new rakes are designed to improve ventilation as well, so that people dont feel suffocated. All the expansion is being done for the commuters alone.

Why are people still travelling cattle class despite the expansion? As we increase our capacity, the load on the system is also increasing. In the last six months, an additional 87,000 commuters a day have been using the Western Railway because it is the cheapest, fastest mode of travel, says Prabhakar.

If the problems persist despite railway expansion, what is the solution? Dont ask us. We are not solution providers for the citys problems. Ask your town planners why they did not plan for transport while allowing the suburbs to develop, he says.

Population in the distant suburbs has almost doubled, according to census statistics. But services have not increased in proportion. There are some measures that the Railways can take immediately without spending much money. Its just a matter of better planning, says Ashok Datar, an activist from the Mumbai Social and Environmental Network. They should re-allocate more trains in the northern suburbs from Andheri to Virar. We need to prioritise public transport and improve connectivity between all modes of transport. Why not have dedicated lanes for buses? Our politicians and bureaucrats are too south-centric and car-centric.

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