Shiny Railway balance sheets but what about consumer comfort?
Whenever I see headlines such as Railways remarkable turnaround or Indian Railways zoom ahead or How Laloo turned the railways into a profit making industry I can’t help feeling cynical and irritated. All these numbers are fine…but what about the railway customers? What do shining balance sheets mean when consumers are being neglected? I am a regular on Indian railways and see the dirt, the filth, not just on platforms and railway lines but also inside the train. We have an uncomfortable ride most of the time. I am not used to it inspite of traveling on trains regularly. There has never been a time when I have not felt squeamish about using the toilets or not hesitated before keeping my bag on the floor. And fellow commuters feel the same. And then this new three month in advance reservation system which is geared simply to fill the railway coffers…at the cost of the consumer. No consumer wants to book railway tickets three months in advance if he can help it! But the balance sheets will look good.
That is why I was glad to read in the newspaper today that a group of students from abroad who have come to talk to Laloo about this ‘turnaround’ told Lalu pointblank what the actual condition of the railways was:
55 students of elite business schools in the United States (Darden and McCombs) who visited Delhi on Friday to learn from Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Indian Railways turnaround story, took trains to travel between Delhi-Agra and Agra-Varanasi. They were appalled to see the railway stations awash with litter, dirty toilets on platforms and in trains, sticky bedsheets supplied in AC coaches and delay in running of trains…interacting with Lalu on Friday, Langlais, an MBA student from Darden did not mince words to ask him why the trains and railway platforms in India were dirty and trains ran behind schedule by several hours. The minister was stumped by the question for a moment and could only say that he would look into it.
And as to the realilty of the so-called beggars teeming on the platform, here is what Lyndsay Thornett, a first year student of McCombs had to say:
One of my friends distributed 20 packets of cookies to beggars. But they offered to sell it back to us without knowing that we were all together
There was another headline today in the TOI, Mumbai. It went: Railways hire IIM experts for freight business plan. As TOI makes very select articles available online I could not link to it. It said:
The mutual admration that the Indian Railways and the prestigious IIMs share seems to be growing. IIM A had invited Lalu to deliver to deliver a lecture on the railway’s turnaround last year and now the railways has appointed a three-member team from IIM, Calcutta, to prepare a business plan for the Rs 25,000 crore dedicated freight corridor (DFC) project.
I do hope that the IIM’s teach the railways a thing of two about service to the customer. Anyway even if they do, Lalu is not bothered. He probably travels in trains that are specially cleaned and shone for him and ofcourse always in airconditioned coaches. That too, free. What does he understand about customer service? Or is it because he knows that those who travel on the trains, specially in second class compartments are the poor and the middle-class who will not complain as much as air passengers do? The majority who travel on trains are illiterate anyway.
Well, in the long term I think this apathetic attitude towards consumers will not work. It certainly gives a very poor image to foreigners and belies the India Shining rhetoric. It makes foreigners believe that we are dirty as a nation when actually this is not true. We are just laid back. We keep our bodies clean and our homes clean. Its the civic sense that we lack. And this applies to the government too. The government babus (bureaucrats) hound their sweepers and peons to keep their offices and attached toilets sparkling clean but when it comes to public toilets and restrooms they are not bothered. And the shit in the Indian railways toilets and on the rails is to be seen to be believed. Its disgusting. Thats why I am contemplating a switch to buses for short journeys.
(Photo credits: Girl on train image from IndiaTop20, the photo of students with Laoo from Mumbai Mirror and the photo of the railway tracks is taken by me at a Mumbai Central platform.)
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Indian railways should ensure cleanliness first