Terminal velocity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am


It's raining cows and buffaloes in Mumbai. Schools have closed; low-lying areas are flooded; and the railway, lifeline for millions, is at a standstill.

Dayanand V. Shenoy has a long day ahead. The deputy station master at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) works the phones, consults weather updates and cajoles his team of controllers. They stare at the screens of a hi-tech traffic management system designed to monitor train arrivals and departures. Except at the moment there aren't any. Waterlogged tracks mean services have been suspended. And if the trains don't move; India's financial capital doesn't move.

CST was built by the British and completed in 1887 to commemorate the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria. It was a time of grandiose colonial statements and no expense was spared on what was to become the headquarters of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway.

Construction took 10 years and, on its completion, Victoria Terminus, as it was called until 1996, became the largest man-made structure on the subcontinent. The design, inspired by St Pancras station in London, incorporated gothic spires, neoclassical sculptures and stained-glass windows. Today, CST is a Unesco World Heritage site and the most photographed building in India after the Taj Mahal.

The Mumbai suburban rail network boasts a punctuality rate of 97 per cent but the figure is set to nosedive until the rain stops. Dealing with monsoonal downpours is all in a day's work for Shenoy. This isn't the first deluge of the summer; nor will it be the last.

'We experienced worse in June and July,' the logistics man recalls. 'When the chips are down, Mumbai stands up.'

India has been called the land of a billion stories and a three-rupee (50 HK cents) platform ticket is all it costs to watch the daily performance at CST. Moments of high drama are interspersed with glimpses of comedy and romance, all spiked with an impending sense of tragedy. Scratch just beneath the surface and you'll unearth enough material for scores of novels.

Every day thousands of wide-eyed migrants arrive in 'the city of dreams', hoping to find a job and the chance of a better life. Among them are a handful of unaccompanied children drawn to the bright lights and Bollywood glamour. The resourceful and enterprising are able to hustle a modest living - as long as they're smart enough not to set up on someone else's patch or get caught without a vendor's licence.

Raj Kumar has been in Mumbai for two months and has yet to fall foul of the railway police. The 13-year-old left home when he realised his parents lacked the financial resources to care for him and his four siblings. For 12 hours a day he serves steaming tea to grateful travellers in the cathedral-like ticket hall. Most weeks he manages to send a percentage of his meagre earnings home to his mother in Uttar Pradesh, 1,300 kilometres away. If he can keep saving his rupees, Kumar hopes to return home and open a garment business.

'First I would give jobs to my brothers and sisters,' he says. 'And I wouldn't have to make the tea.'

The only topic the industrious teen is reluctant to discuss is where he sleeps.

On the quieter long-distance platforms, groups of boys bed down on squares of cardboard. Some inhale glue or ink thinner for a cheap high or to stave off hunger pangs. Members of NGOs scour the station offering food, drink and a safe place to sleep. Some charities offer the chance of an education for the lucky few who seize the opportunity. Plenty of others opt to stay beside the tracks.

The rumbling thunder that is Mumbai's summer soundtrack shows no sign of abating. Passengers crowd on to the concourse and into waiting rooms, surrounded by enough baggage for a battalion. They doze, eat meals out of metal tins and play cards. All look to the giant screens for updates.

Indian railway stations are a microcosm of the country as a whole. Overcrowded, chaotic and in dire need of a facelift, they somehow function in practice yet wouldn't stand a chance in theory. In The Great Railway Bazaar, travel writer Paul Theroux describes stations as 'scale models of Indian society, with its divisions of caste, class and sex'.

CST provides retiring rooms for weary travellers but, thanks to the torrential rain, they're full to overflowing. Groups of stranded travellers congregate in a passageway outside an office marked 'housekeeper'. Two women with nose rings and bright saris do their best to assign beds but they're fighting a losing battle. Passengers have started camping in the corridor. Like Mumbai itself, CST is bursting at the seams.

IT IS STILL raining the following morning but maintenance crews have spent the night pumping water from the tracks and services are almost back to normal. Mumbai's workforce begins arriving in droves. Businessmen and barefoot labourers leap off moving trains, aquaplane towards the exits and are swallowed up by the city.

Porters struggle in a line across the tracks balancing giant baskets of seafood on their heads. Melting ice drips down into their eyes and soaks their flimsy clothing. At the front of each train, women alight from female-only carriages, their saris a kaleidoscope of colour.

On a normal working day, three million passengers swarm through the station, and rush hour, referred to by local railway chiefs as 'super dense crush load', is about to begin. For the next two hours, an average of four passengers will be packed into every square metre of carriage space.

Shenoy is in good spirits today. There are still caution orders on some sections of suburban track but punctuality is back to a respectable 90 per cent. He can finally catch up on his paperwork.

'Yesterday we had huge problems,' he says. 'Lots of people on daily wages lost a day's pay as they couldn't get to work. I feel sorry for them. But today Mumbai has regained itself.'

Shenoy is in his second year at CST, having managed shunting yards for more than 20 years. His rank means he and his family are entitled to live in railway-staff quarters such as the plush residential complex at nearby Badhwar Park. 'I have that option but I move around too much with my job. We have our own apartment in Thane, where my children go to school.'

The suburb, 34 kilometres north of the city, has a special place in Indian railway folklore. On April 16, 1853, a train carrying 400 VIPs left Bombay, as Mumbai was formerly known, to a 21-gun salute. Seventy-five minutes later the dignitaries arrived in Thane, marking the first-ever railway journey on the subcontinent.

Those present could never have foreseen that their short ride would transform Mumbai's history, enabling an archipelago of seven marshy islands to grow and develop into what is now one of the world's largest cities. These days a trip to Thane takes half the time and costs a very reasonable nine rupees. A monthly season ticket sets commuters back 140 rupees.

Like many employees, Shenoy grew up in a railway family.

'My father worked in the printing press. He was responsible for the tickets but his job doesn't exist any more because everything is done electronically.'

Fortunately, Indian Railways rarely forces its staff to accept redundancy. Instead of being laid off, Shenoy Snr was offered a position in another department. The company will also offer a job to a family member of any employee who dies 'in harness'.

'We do our best to look after our own,' says Praveen Bajpai, vice-president of the Central Railway Mazdoor Sangh, or workers union. His office is tucked away in a labyrinthine parcel office building that smells of stale sweat and spices.

Bajpai has been fighting for improved conditions for Mumbai railway workers for 30 years. At present, the thorny issue of outsourcing jobs to private contractors is angering many of his 82,000 members.

'Contracts are allocated on a bidding system and nearly always go to the company quoting the lowest price,' he explains. 'As a result, staff are paid less and often have to do the work of two people. Safety is compromised.'

According to union figures, 9,000 railway employees died nationwide last year. Bajpai admits it's impossible to say with certainty that overwork is to blame but he is adamant that incidences of high-blood pressure, heart complaints and diabetes are exacerbated by a stressful working environment.

'There are thousands of vacancies but they're not filling them. It's all about saving money. Who knows - if we had a few more maintenance men on the ground, maybe the stormwater drains wouldn't have become blocked yesterday. They save money on staff salaries but end up paying out more because of disruptions.'

Indian Railways is the single largest employer in India and the fourth largest in the world. There are 1.5 million people on the company payroll and a further half a million working in related industries, who invariably lack job security or benefits. Not everyone at CST has the security of knowing that a union is looking after their interests.

Prashant has been shining commuters' shoes at his trackside stand for more than 15 years. He is originally from Bihar, India's poorest and most lawless state. Earnings during the monsoon are barely enough to cover his costs let alone provide for a wife and five daughters in his native village.

'People wear waterproof shoes or flip-flops at this time of year, so trade is slower,' laments Prashant. 'After I've paid for brushes and polish it doesn't leave me with much.'

The insecurity of his livelihood is a source of considerable stress. 'Reaching an understanding' with station middlemen or protection gangs is essential. As an additional insurance policy, Prashant offers a free clean and polish to any policeman who passes his stand. Plenty do. What he would like is to set up shop in a more lucrative part of the station.

The long-distance reservation hall is the only air-conditioned public area at CST. The cool air makes it an especially popular hangout in the summer months. Many 'passengers' spend hours dozing on benches; others come to read newspapers or meet friends. Some have been coming for years.

Upstairs, there is a distinctly international atmosphere. Tourists who are unable to reserve sleeper berths in advance can pitch up at the foreign ticket office on the day before departure. Here they're able to book space on exotic-sounding services such as the Golden Temple Mail or the Flying Rani Express.

S.P. Bagde works the day shift, guiding bemused visitors through the convoluted reservation process and tourist quota system. His years of experience mean he's able to answer many enquiries without even looking at his computer screen. 'Chennai? There's an express train at 2pm that takes 26 hours.' It's hard to catch him out - but is worth trying.

'Kanyakumari? Ah, you are choosing the furthest destination from Mumbai: 2,135 kilometres precisely. The train is taking 45 hours. Second class is 504 rupees. Would you like to book?'

Indians have a love of statistics and they're as much at home talking railway trivia as they are discussing cricket batting averages. The numbers are enough to make a trainspotter's head spin. Every day, about seven million passengers make use of the 2,300 scheduled daily services provided by the Central and Western suburban rail systems. This represents almost half of all journeys made on the entire Indian Railways network.

More than 3,500 people die on the Mumbai suburban tracks annually. Most of the fatalities occur when people are hit by trains as they cross the tracks instead of using footbridges. Some commuters are electrocuted by overhead power cables or bludgeoned by trackside poles as they lean out of overcrowded trains. It is estimated there are between 150 and 200 railway suicides each year, although distinguishing between accidental and premeditated deaths is no easy task for medical teams.

Not far from Bagde's ticket counter, in an annex building, is the railway court, which sits each morning. At the end of a clammy corridor filled with police officers, a man is being fingerprinted in what appears to be an interrogation room. Next door a dozen scruffily dressed men sit cross-legged on the floor awaiting their fate. There are rooms piled high with mildewing legal documents and an empty cell with sturdy bars and primitive facilities. Snoozing in the stifling heat is K.B. Shinde, a prosecuting lawyer for the Railway Protection Force.

'We're always seeing the same old faces,' Shinde grumbles. 'If there's been a high degree of mischief, the culprit is fined 1,000 rupees.'

Unlicensed hawkers tend to be hit hardest but most treat the payment as an outgoing - the cost of doing business.

'They pay the fine and head straight back on to the trains,' Shinde explains.

The majority of offenders, however, pay about 100 rupees for relatively minor transgressions such as fare evasion, crossing the tracks illegally or travelling on the roof of a train.

Freeloaders are not the only people to fall foul of strict rules concerning rooftop travel. The makers of the next James Bond film were told their screenplay, which required 007 star Daniel Craig to fight on top of a moving Indian train, would need modifying as, according to railways minister Dinesh Trivedi, 'Rooftop travel will not be shown.' Filming, which was scheduled for February and March, now looks unlikely to go ahead due to safety issues.

Of equal concern for ministry officials was the production team's demand of 'locking off the lines for seven or eight hours a day for seven days in a row'. Authorities might have considered adopting a strategy that worked well the last time CST was used as the location for a blockbuster film. Scenes for the Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire were filmed after midnight.

In another sweltering room near the main entrance to the station is the headquarters of the railway police. An inspector in a sweat-stained uniform sits beside a colleague who pecks at an ancient typewriter. The overhead fan blasts hot air down like a giant hair dryer.

Security at CST is a sensitive subject. On the evening of November 26, 2008, two Pakistani terrorists entered the station, pulled out assault rifles from their backpacks and began spraying bullets around the venerable building. Ill-trained and under-equipped, police officers can be seen on CCTV footage running for their lives - their bolt-action rifles no match for modern machine guns. An hour and 15 minutes later, 58 people were dead and 104 lay injured in what was later discovered to be part of a co-ordinated shooting and bombing attack across the city.

Since the attacks, airport-style security scanners have been positioned at each entrance but they're easy to walk around. The inspector shows signs of impatience.

'Don't worry, we have additional surveillance,' he says. 'We conduct twice-daily anti-sabotage checks under trains, in luggage and on platforms. And since the attacks, we have installed more CCTV cameras and extra sniffer dogs.'

The beleaguered inspector is a realist, however, and waves his hand towards the flood of humanity streaming into the station. Sinewy men trudge past carrying packages of all shapes and sizes. A ragged boy rolls a tractor wheel on to a platform and porters heave luggage carts to waiting rooms.

'It's impossible to monitor so many people,' he almost whispers. 'At least we're keeping the cows out.'

By evening the rain is finally beginning to ease. In the linen room there is a sense of relief. The task of drying thousands of bed sheets, blankets, pillow cases and curtains is carried out partly in-house but also outsourced to contract laundry firms based across the city.

'All our bedding is dry. This is our duty,' a clerk says, stretching out his arms to illus- trate how large the industrial-sized tumble driers are. The overworked pen pusher has other problems to contend with. 'So far this year about 1 per cent of all railway bedding has been stolen. We're not sure if passengers or thieves are responsible. I need to make some inquiries.'

The last train of the day chugs out of CST at 1.40am. Staff have a couple of hours to complete essential maintenance work and clean public areas before the next departure, at 4.05am. Groups of travellers huddle on the concourse trying to sleep. They will be leaving on early trains with gifts for a wedding, new clothes for a festival or with enough money saved to start a new life far away. Others have just arrived and have nowhere else to go. Mumbai can be an intimidating city for migrants.

Six teenagers from rural Bengal sit in a circle facing outwards as if to protect themselves and their belongings from conmen and thieves. They've returned to Mumbai for a second stint of construction work. They like what the city has to offer: shopping malls, cinemas and a sense of adventure. At the same time each misses his family and the security of village life. And after a traumatic few hours in Mumbai they're more homesick than ever.

The construction company representative failed to show up so the Bengalis set out to try and find him. They took a train to a suburban station but were caught loitering without platform tickets. Each had to pay a 300-rupee fine - or a bribe as they call it. Now the boys are back at CST considering whether they should pool their diminishing resources for third-class tickets to Chennai, where there are, according to new rumours, jobs. The other option is to head home.

The city of dreams can very quickly become the city of broken dreams.