I'm on the 11007 Down (Deccan Express) from Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus Mumbai to Pune Junction, a four hour train ride in the place of the three hour car drive through the twists and turns of the Western Ghats. The tinted and dirty window of the AC Chair Car provides a darkened view of garbage strewn railway tracks, of soot covered 1970s era public housing that needs to be put out of its misery and torn down, and of random clusters of railway employees gathered around a train.
India's railway minister, Suresh Prabhu, is making a name for himself by trying to restructure the railway board, monetising railway land and with the help of Japan announcing India's first bullet train, to be built between Mumbai and Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Mr. Prabhu has his own Twitter handle and staff monitoring it, and a day doesn't go by without a newspaper article about somebody having Tweeted Mr. Prabhu from a train while in dire need and having received resolution by the time the train pulled into the next station. He's looking at private sector companies to commercialise railway platforms and offer food services.
Mr. Prabhu's efforts are part of this Government's attempt to jolt the system from a number of angles, to get the country to clean up after itself (Svachh Bharat), to start manufacturing goods (Make in India), to boost entrepreneurship (StartUp India) and to provide skill sets for the future (Skills India). It stems from a realisation that things are not well as they are, that you cannot lurch and lumber forward in Soviet era trains that are as likely to kill you as get you to your destination, through a combination of equipment and human failure.
We're crossing Thane, girls stand in the skeleton of a Mumbai local train as it rides across the mangroves into the City, busy on their cell phones. More garbage, humans and animals compete for a spot to start the day.
The resistance to change in India is huge, andI think there are two large battles going on, between groups of people but also within of people themselves..
A large swath of the population thrives on a general anarchy, on not being restricted in any way from littering where they wish to, from not stopping at red lights, from not obeying tenancy agreements, from elbowing their way to the front of the queue. The Government needs to get out of their way, until of course they need the Government in which case aggression instantly turns to apathy, jutting elbows converted to an outstretched hand. The Government has to provide me with reservations for my sub community, with handouts, with subsidized train and bus fairs.
The other battle centers around the broader role of the Government itself. For more than sixty years the Government has proposed and disposed without ever having been held truly accountable in terms of its achievements. Something about India's $2 trillion economy doesn't quite add up. The amount of money ostensibly spent on roads, rail, schooling and public health doesn't quite tally with what the consumer gets in return.
There is a conspiracy of the incompetent that has done very well for itself in the past 65 years. A bit of garbage and 2,000 deaths in rail travel a year is a small price to pay for being able to do what you want, when you want, on Government money. Competence brings with it a stress that many people can do without. Ask train operators in Japan or employees of private airlines in India whether their life is stress fee and they will tell you that being on time, every time is hard but gratifying work.
At the launch of Startup India the Finance Minister announced that the Government of India needed to get out of the way of entrepreneurs and let them get on with building world class companies. The Government announcing that it did not know what's good for you was unique.
After a business meeting in Sanpada in Navi Mumbai, less than a week after the Pune trip,_ I have the less than smart idea to take a local train to Mumbai, a "50 minute ride" according to a colleague. I am shoved and pulled in a first class compartment all the way to Andheri, at which point I discover that the train is heading back up North to Panvel. I jump out, finally catch an auto ricksha to Sea Link and a black and yellow cab to Nariman Point from there, 2 1/2 hours door to door. There are those rare days when I think that wearing a tailored Prince of Wales suit in Bombay may not be the smartest idea. This was one such day. Check out this link of what the train ride looks like at daytime.
Btw, the banner photo was taken from our holiday home outside of San Gimignano at 6.20 am. What light! It lasted all of five minutes.