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Shiny Railway balance sheets but what about consumer comfort?

March 17, 2007

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.)

Related Reading: The 90 advance ticket reservation is a disadvantage to consumers
E-ticketing on Indian Railways spirals!
Railway stations to get a makeover
Indian railways should ensure cleanliness first

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2007 7:43 am

    North Americans must generally be considered cleanliness obsessed by people from various parts of the world for when visiting remote wilderness parks we are encouraged to have the good manners to bury our shit. Communities are enraged and disgusted by drunks and indigents urinating in back alleys. No-one would even think of defecating, in the dark, on the rails of our commuter trains, except for the “homeless” who are despised, or may be chased away from facilities provided by businesses for their costumers. We spend big bucks on toilets here; many models are available to satisfy every possible whim and “taste”. Out of sight, out of mind, pumped out into the oceans and rivers. We eat and shit, zip around the world and expect the same level of our cleanliness fetish to be met, and those who do not come up to snuff we consider backwards, primitive, lacking in drive to develop their living standards, lazy, inefficient or if we are being charitable,even Quaint and Whimsical. Oh, my God! I am Ranting!
    Are your buses any better than your trains in India, Nita?

  2. March 18, 2007 8:22 am

    And thats a reality check for us here! We need it badly. Its a festering wound in India, the country’s shit. We are moving towards development in every which way but are we cleaning up our shit?
    Well, the new malls that have come up have clean toilets (not all) and so do the multiplex theatres (probably won’t satisfy western standards though. Buses are fairly clean, those run by private operators but ofcourse there are no toilets here. The restrooms in small hotels on the way are bad and they stink.
    Only the top (5-star) hotels here have clean toilets.
    When we lived in Tanzania, a much poorer country than India, I found to my surprise that public toilets as well as toilets in run down hotels were sparkling clean! I could use a public toilet anywhere, no problem. Cleanest I have ever seen.
    I really wish our government spent big bucks on toilets! Which means keeping them clean as well. And the smaller hotels too. they don’t understand that it affects tourism. I remember in a school in tanzania where I was a substitute teacher we had a discussion in the staff room. The teachers there were middle class and they said they would never travel to India because they had heard that one had to live in a 5-star hotel to get a clean toilet.
    btw, did you know that by and large cold countries are cleaner than warm ones? That is because if they werent they wouldn’t survive. I like to find historical reasons for everything and the reasons for hot countries being dirtier is because our sun kills everything, all the muck and bacteria lying outside. So that is why we keep our homes clean but are not bothered about the rest.
    Guess we need to change. I think our government should start a TOILET AND CLEANILNESS committee along with its economic committees to fix this problem.

  3. March 18, 2007 9:16 am

    I love it that you provoke more questions in my mind with your blogs and each time I read your writing I learn more about thing I am curious but am too inept to ask specific about. The way things are all over this world have very complexly interwoven causes that vary from place to place.
    Our standard buses that drive people around in cities don’t have toilets, people can get off anywhere they need to and easily find a public toilet. Buses used to travel between cities and towns have toilets, fairly clean. But here, travelling by bus is seen as something the poorer or more frugal people use for long-distance travel. it seems to be the destination that seems to be the main goal of Western travellers, not the journey – the journey is considered a necessity to be got over as quickly as possible and with the least amount of discomfort. We seem to crave the “main attraction” the most exciting and novel and stimulating. This seems to be a fundamental cultural difference between Western and “other” cultures.

  4. March 28, 2007 9:58 am

    I am impressed by some of the comments on the open toilets on indian railways. Please take a look at to review the details of a punblic interest case on the matter and comments by the public in the forum.

    Contamination through human faecal matter of drinking water supplies is a major cause of diseases such as polio and many other preventable dieaseses. Instead of spending money on weapons and warfare, the politicians all over the world, need to focus on health and hygene oriented basic public health matters. I look to support and ideas from readers on your forum. The world needs peace and peace must happen through global participation of like minded people from all over the world. Politicians are destroying the world, and we liberty, justice and an open society. End torture and blatant abuse of authority, illegal detention and all that goes as abuse by political authorities. They need to wake up make peace and the basic health livlihood of people all over the world, their responsiblity. Make love not war…

  5. April 7, 2007 11:55 pm

    Unfortunately the cash surplus hides the truth.

    The problem is that IR has no idea whether it is making a profit or not, as it fails to account for many things including real depreciation and staff entitlements.

    IR only emplys 3 (THREE) professionally qualified accountants.

  6. Seran permalink
    April 27, 2007 5:12 pm

    I’m a frequent traveller in train and It really sucks when I board on a train. You can even see cockroaches, rats etc in them.

    The human excrete processing can be done more efficiently. Use pipes and store it in some place in the train like tanks and cleanup in every station/alternate stations, instead of opening it into the tracks.

    As IR is making heavy profits these days they can certainly do it or any feasible solution.

  7. root123 permalink
    August 2, 2007 4:44 pm

    Infact, the charm of traveling abord this chugging beauty has been robbed.

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