With 22 million passengers every day the Indian railways is second only to China globally in terms of the number of people transported. Since the onset of the Covid pandemic in early 2020 however, hundreds of train services have been shut down and traffic plummeted with big revenue losses.
While this has not made much difference to the India’s urban middle classes who can afford to drive or fly around the country, for millions of people in small town and rural India the impact of stopping trains has been disastrous. Transport costs have sky rocketed and become unaffordable for many, especially for those dependent on train journeys to reach places of employment or to earn a livelihood.
Take the case of Ramdas Uike of Lakhapur village of Betul district of MP. Before the Covid pandemic struck he used to take the AB Shuttle passenger at 7.10 AM every morning from the Barsali station near his village to sell firewood in Betul. This would fetch him 125 to 150 rupees and he would make an additional 200 rupees by doing odd jobs in the city before returning home late evening.
“The train journey, up and down, used to cost 15 to 20 rupees. Now it costs Rs 60 to cover the same distance by bus and they don’t allow me to carry a bundle of firewood onboard. My earnings have dropped drastically and it has become difficult to raise a family” he told Covid Response Watch.
The situation is the same for many other people from the surrounding villages including Bagda, Guwadi, Barsali, Qazi Jamathi, Mordongri who used to go to Betul daily by AB Shuttle passenger train every day. These include laborers, farmers selling milk and vegetables, students going to school and coaching.
For all of them, this train was the basis of livelihood or access to education. Many parents who had got their children admitted to schools or colleges in city have called them back to the village. Farmers have stopped selling milk and vegetables. Some still travel to and from Betul by bus but their earnings have reduced. While some express trains on the route have been restarted on this route recently none of them stop in the villages around Betul.
Sunil Solanki from Vidisha has a similar story to tell. He used to travel between Vidisha and Bhopal every day by the Dakshin Express to set up a small roadside shop in front of a jewellery showroom. He made a meagre living by cleaning gold and silver jewellery, beading necklaces and repairing broken ones.
Sunil had a monthly pass, that cost 600 rupees, for his regular train journeys. Everything was going well till March 2020, when the government stopped all trains citing Covid. After six months, when services resumed there were fewer trains and these too did not stop at Vidisha. Yet another six months later when the frequency of trains was increased and some halted at Vidisha the railways scrapped monthly passes and insisted on everyone purchasing tickets with reservation. This meant shelling out 200 rupees for each journey, making them unaffordable. Unable to travel to work Sunil was soon replaced by someone locally from Bhopal by the jeweller thus depriving him of his only livelihood. He now sells bangles in a cart on the streets to make ends meet.
Perversely, while the railway authorities have suspended regular services and facilities they have also launched a drive to make up for lost revenues by targeting more and more passengers for imposing fines under different pretexts.
For example, the Bhopal Division of the West Central Railway Zone of Indian Railways, has collected total fines worth Rs 105,524,805 in the months of October 2019 and April, May and June of the year 2021. According to press releases issued by the railway authorities this fine amount has been recovered from 1,53,337 people. Out of 68 railway divisions of Indian Railways, if only Bhopal division has collected such fines in just a few months, then it is safe to assume that the remaining 67 railway divisions must have collected fines worth several thousand crores of rupees.
Dinesh Jat of Gwalior[i] remembers bitterly how a ticket inspector in Itarsi insisted on fining him 1800 rupees, almost all the money he had with him while returning home from Pune after losing his job at a spice factory there in April this year. Thousands of passengers getting back to their hometowns after being thrown out of work have had to shell out the last penny in their pockets to railway officials bent on meeting revenue targets set for them by the Railway Board.
It is true that during the first wave of Covid, the Indian Railways had started ‘Shramik’ trains from May 1, 2021 to take the migrant workers to their homes in other cities across the country. This service was operated for one to one and a half months and that time the railways did not charge any fee from the workers and they were even provided free food. Subsequently however the railways have made the Covid epidemic an excuse for squeezing income out of ordinary passengers.
According to Arun Awasthi, Vice President of the MP Up-Downer Association, trains were the basis of living for the people of the middle and poorer sections of the state. Many of these trains have been stopped, while the special trains introduced do not stop at small stations.
Most disturbingly, he says, monthly season tickets for regular passengers have been stopped, even ordinary tickets are no longer available and obtaining reserved seats has been made mandatory. Even the concession given in the fare to senior citizens in trains has been abolished and cost of platform tickets hiked substantially.
“Traveling by buses was already expensive as compared to train and now is even more costly due to the increase in the price of diesel-petrol. Lakhs of people will be seriously affected if the trains are not restored as before” says Awasthi, who has done a Jal Satyagraha in the Betwa river demanding restoration of public transport as before the Covid pandemic.
This is the first time anyone has organised such a drastic protest anywhere in the country on the issue of access to cheaper public transportation for ordinary citizens.
Ashok Kapse is a freelance journalist based in Bhopal
[i] Changed name.