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The Tyranny of Travel

Stories from India’s Longest Train Journey

Sharada Prasad (sharadaprasad@berkeley.edu) is a doctoral scholar at University of California, Berkeley. 

India’s longest train journey reveals not just the apathy of the authorities but also the routine degradation of rail infrastructure and services. The author recounts a journey of over 3 days and 4,238 km in the sleeper class from Assam to Tamil Nadu. 

Trains have always fascinated me. I grew up in Chitradurga, a town not connected to any major train route. At the railway level crossing, I always looked longingly at  trains that passed in front of me like moving walls. The clattering of wheels, chugging of the engine, that lingering smell of the thick diesel smoke belched out from the locomotive, the energy of the children waving at me from the windows, and the courage of the people hanging from the doors, all fuelled my obsession with trains.

I am currently a PhD student, traveling for my research in India. When I learnt that my research would take me to northeastern parts of India, I had this epiphany that I should take the train with the longest route in India—the Vivek Express from Dibrugarh in Assam to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. Starting from the eastern tip (technically, Ledo in Assam is the eastern most train station but there are no direct trains from Ledo to other states of India) of the Indian rail network and going all the way to its southernmost tip, the train covers a distance of 4,238 km in 83 hours.

Finding a Place on the Train

On the evening of 3 May 2014, the day of my travel, I received a text on my mobile that my reservation was not confirmed and my ticket was still waitlisted. My hopes of undertaking the longest train  journey in India in the comfortable two-tier air conditioned (AC) coach was crushed by a string of words sent by a machine with no awareness of my childhood  obsession with trains. The optimist in me said, “go and talk to the traveling ticket examiner (TTE). Anything can happen in India”.

A waitlisted electronic ticket (e-ticket) booked on the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) website gets cancelled automatically if the ticket is neither confirmed nor moved to the reservation after cancellation (RAC) list. As mine was an e-ticket, it was no longer valid for travel, and I had to buy a new ticket from the booking counter. That meant reaching the train station at least two hours before the scheduled departure time of my train.

Fortunately, I made it to the station in time and stood in a queue anticipating the joys of the epic journey ahead of me. The queue was long, but I had two hours to go. So, I was not too worried. But the line did not move for about 20 minutes and kept getting longer and longer. The reason was that only one person was issuing tickets while two other officials behind the counter were happily chatting without issuing any tickets.

Two long distance trains were about to leave in an hour. The Border Security Force (BSF) personnel, policemen, train station staff and other government officials were constantly jumping the queue to purchase their tickets, while most of us were sincerely waiting for our turn. Only when the agitated public started protesting and blocked the government and army personnel from buying any tickets, the queue started to move. Within 40 minutes we all had our tickets.

I was at the platform at 11 pm. With 45 minutes to go, I started chatting with the AC coach attendant who was loading bed rolls on the train. I asked him:

“Any idea when the TTE will arrive?”

“Why?” he said, stowing the bedrolls into a cabinet behind the train door.

“I have to travel to Kanyakumari, and I don’t have a confirmed berth.”

“The train has more than 400 people on waitlist. You won’t get any confirmed seat. If you want, I can accommodate you in the AC coach.”

“Where? You said the train is full.”

“You can sleep here,” he said pointing at a berth right at the entrance of the coach. It was meant for attendants and he wanted to sell that space to me for money.

“You need to be quick with your decision. There is lot of demand for the space.”

“Ok, I will think about it,” I said and started walking towards the general compartments.

Finding the unreserved or general compartments was easy. These coaches were completely dark, without any running fans or lights, and you could identify them from a distance. Lit by the lamps on the platform, the forearms of the passengers seemed more like disembodied limbs attached to the window railing. But when I peeped in, I saw that the coach was fully packed with people. People were piled upon one another in every possible corner of the coach, including the luggage racks. I felt that if the train did not move soon, the intense heat inside the coach might fuse people to one another.

Though some of these people could have boarded this train at the next station or the station after, they had travelled to Dibrugarh, its starting point, with the hope of finding space in the general compartment. In that darkness, it dawned on me that I was not cut out to travel in the general compartment, even without my huge bags, for three and a half days. I was now more than desperate to find a space in the reserved sleeper coach if not an AC coach.

Just five minutes before the departure of the train, the TTE for the AC coaches arrived. I explained my situation using well-rehearsed sentences. The TTE was not impressed by my passion for undertaking the longest train journey in India.

“I must be honest. Forget the AC coach. You can never find a place there. Not even the people on the RAC list can have any hopes.”

“What do you suggest then?” I asked.

“Travel in the sleeper compartment till Guwahati and find another train there. You can even fly from Guwahati”.

“But sir, I do not want to travel by road. Taking this train is my dream,” I implored, clearing the lump in my throat at the thought of the crowd inside the sleeper coaches.

The TTE shrugged and got into the two-tier AC coach. I got into the sleeper coach right next to the AC coach, and the train departed on time. The movement of the train filled the coach with a cool breeze, giving relief particularly to the passengers in the general compartment.  

Travelling in a Chicken Coop

The sleeper coach was almost empty. I went through the reservation chart posted by the door and found a vacant berth, which I could use till Guwahati. By the time I stowed my luggage under the seat and decided to rest, the train came to a halt, just five minutes after its departure, and resumed its journey only after two and a half hours. I later learnt that a person trying to cross the tracks was injured, and the police inspected a good stretch of the tracks for suspected sabotage.

In a couple of hours, I was comfortable and decided to continue my journey in the sleeper coach itself. Between Dimapur and Lumding, I explained my situation to another TTE. He was very sympathetic and accommodated my request by providing me with a confirmed berth all the way till Kanyakumari for a fee of Rs 1,100. But when he handed me a receipt, it was for Rs 450 only. I looked at him in confusion, and the TTE said, “Hope you don’t mind the difference”. Not knowing how to respond to such a statement, I got back to my berth with a sense of relief which was not to last long.

At Jagi Road railway station, a huge crowd swarmed into my coach. With Guwahati only one and a half hours away, I thought that these people were headed to Guwahati. But nobody got down there. Instead, more people boarded the train, which was by now three hours late. Five to seven people shared lower berths, and two to three people slouched on upper berths. I went berserk when three people tried encroaching upon my berth. Having warned several people several times, I slipped into sleep, quite tired and perplexed by the situation.

At 4:30 am, I decided to use the toilet early, anticipating long lines during morning hours. The dim morning light, entering through windows, lit the neighbouring berths. To my utter relief, I could see only two people sharing each berth. I thought that the crowd had thinned overnight. But when I put my feet on the floor, I was horrified. Those who could not find a berth to share had slept in the aisles. Groggily, I hovered over them, berth to berth, towards the toilet, scared of slipping and falling on people and breaking their ribs. When I reached the toilets, I found four people sleeping on the floor inside each of the toilets. That is when I fully woke up to the situation.

There were people everywhere, sleeping in all possible postures in all feasible places. Some people were suspended in air, resting in hammocks made out of blankets. I started counting people — 140 people shared 72 berths, 12 people slept inside the toilets, 15 people slept in sitting posture on the deck between the doors, 20 people slept on the landing between gangway bellows and nearly 100 people slept in the aisles. Bags were stored above the fans, on top of wash basins and in all corners. With 300 people, including four women and a one year old child, in a coach meant to accommodate only 72, the coach resembled a chicken coop.

Stinking Toilets and Indifference of Officials

Over the next 65 hours, no TTE visited my coach either to check tickets or to enquire if the   passengers were facing any problems. By the end of the first day, out of the four toilets, one toilet was soiled and the other three were stinking. The toilets had no tumblers (mugs) and empty plastic water bottles were used instead.  The coach ran out of water on the second day. There was no water for four hours. When the sleeper coach passengers tried using the toilets in the adjacent AC coach, there was a skirmish between them and AC coach attendants. People started fetching water in plastic bottles from the pantry car. At Khurda Road junction, passengers filled the overhead tank of the coach with water themselves.

When I decided to speak to the TTEs about the situation, I found them resting inside AC coaches. On complaining, they asked me to provide a written complaint which would be forwarded to the divisional manager for the necessary action. But the whole process would have taken several days, and I wanted to know if something could be done there and then. They said that they would inform the Commercial Department which has the authority to dispatch Government Railway Police (GRP).

I even called up and informed the offices of Kharagpur and Vishakhapatnam railway divisional managers. But, I got no response. Some of the people in the AC coach voluntarily approached me and started sharing their stories. On this train, many people travel in AC coaches, even if they cannot afford it, because the reserved compartment is too crowded and unhygienic. Families with women are sometimes forced to share berths inside AC coaches by bribing the TTE. Even AC coach attendants sell their sleeping spaces for money.

Coach Empties Out at Aluva

Over next two days, I spoke to several people in my coach and learnt that a significant number of people in the coach were Assamese migrant workers headed to Kerala, in search of better paid jobs. They normally travelled in a group of three to seven people. At least one person in the group would have a confirmed berth and the rest would have waitlisted tickets.

Some 100 people in my coach had paid a bribe of Rs 650 each to get their tickets waitlisted, so that they could travel in the sleeper coach with their other friends. During the day, people took turns to sit on the confirmed berth, and at night, two people slept on the berth and rest slept in the aisle. This harrowing 65 hours long journey would be repeated a year later, when the workers head back to visit their families for a couple of weeks. It is amazing how Bangladeshi workers migrate to Assam, Assamese workers to Kerala, and Keralites to the Gulf countries, all moving to realise their aspirations.

With Aluva railway station in Kerala just an hour away, people in my coach started grooming themselves. They brushed their teeth, washed their faces, oiled and combed their hair and changed into a new set of clothes. During the entire 65 hour long, crowded journey, there was no scuffle or theft among the passengers. They empathised with each other by sharing food, space, stories and jokes. By the time the train approached Aluva, it was day break, and the station was covered in misty rain. People bid goodbye to their new friends and stepped out of the train with a bright smile on their face. 

For a photo album compiled by the author recounting the journey, please click here

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