An Open Letter to the Indian Railways

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I was traveling a few days back on Indian Railways and met with an unfortunate incident. Almost a week back, I wrote a letter to all the members of the Railway board narrating the entire incident and raising a few questions. While the letter is made public through my blog, I would like to take it to a larger audience using the platform of PatnaDaily.

Dear Sir,

I should have ideally written this mail three weeks back when the incident, which forced me to write this, took place. Multitudes of reasons held me from accomplishing this simple task in the in between period – however, as the saying goes, it is better late than never. Before I start narrating the incident it is my duty to inform you that this mail is drafted with the assumption that Indian Railways is a Service Provider and its performance should be measured against the set benchmarks for the service industry.

As already pointed out that the incident took place some 3 weeks back while I was traveling from Howrah to Ranchi (Train: Howrah-Hatia Express; Date: 22nd September 2014; PNR: 6232595064) along with my parents.

It started as a normal journey (the train started a few minutes late… nothing unusual by Indian standards) and would have remained so had we not faced the unexpected. As we pulled out our bags from under the lower berth we found, to our horror, that my bag had been ripped apart. The work looked like that of an army of rats (if it was carried out by a single rat then it must be the ‘Hercules’ of rat clan). Four of my shirts (among them 3 were new), two T-shirts, a pair of socks and a seemingly evil novel which went by the name ‘Asura’ (and of course the ill defended bag which carried them) were either ‘dead’ or ‘severely injured’ in this barbaric attack.

A sense of loss gripped us as we took a transport to our destination. It is said that in grief and in anger one loses the sense of better judgment – We also made a mistake by forgetting to lodge a formal complaint at the station office. However, this should not be of any concern in relation to this communication – I am not writing this to demand any compensation. I am writing this because a particularly horrifying thought is bothering me since then.

It is a fact that I incurred losses in the episode described above – it left me with no dress to wear in that trip and would affect my finances whenever I plan to refurbish my wardrobe and travel kit (in fact, it has been partially done).

The impact of such a loss would differ on the basis of financial well-being of a person (for some it would wreak havoc and for some it would not mean a thing. I am somewhere in between). I would, eventually, recover from this loss but for many it would not be that easy. This is the first cause of concern.

Let me bring another angle (which is troubling me since) to it – What if I was traveling for a job interview carrying all my certificates in that bag? What if that (‘Hercules’ of a) rat had decided to devour those certificates instead of the clothes and novel? What if my lifetime of hard work was shredded into the pieces just because the Indian Railways failed to perform its duties well? What if I was in dire need of that job? Imagine the plight and helplessness of an unemployed youth, out for a job interview, whose degrees/certificates and the interview dress are shredded into pieces while traveling through one of your trains.

My degree/certificates are far more important to me than the clothes I wear. People do carry important/precious things when they travel. Sometimes they even carry stuffs which have taken them years to procure. When I purchase a travel ticket from Indian Railways (and for that matter any transporter), it is with the inherent assumption that the carrier would ensure a ‘safe and hassle free’ journey with promised comfort. The term ‘safe and hassle free’ is generic and also encompasses expectations such as safety of the belongings of the passenger. Do you think the Indian Railways provided me a ‘safe and hassle free journey’ in that ride?

Indian Railways is a Service Provider – I pay for a particular service and expect it to be delivered as per expectations. However, the previous record is such that we have been forced to set a low benchmark to measure our expectations: Delayed trains are norm and not exceptions (many miss exams; interviews and other important appointments every day); passenger safety is not given desired importance (and I am not talking of the mishaps/accidents; I am not even referring to the incidents where mighty rats shred people’s belongings; I am referring to the loot and dacoity activities on running trains – I stopped traveling in Sleeper Class some 4 years back when my coach was looted; the only time I was forced to travel in Sleeper again, the coach was subjected to loot); the food from pantry is overpriced, substandard and unhygienic (even in premium trains); the station premises/platforms are not clean enough. I travel in AC and pay as per the rates and yet, many a times, find that the AC is not working; the linens and blankets are dirty and the washrooms unusable. If I continue with this rant, this mail will start to take the form of a book and hence I would put a stop to it.

The fact is that the Indian Railways have been failing us as a Service Provider for long (irrespective of the regimes). I agree that you have a mammoth operation to look after and there may be instances where despite the best efforts adequate service standards could not be maintained – but these need to be exceptions and not expectations. It is high time that Railways pull up its act and start acting like a true Service Provider.

I think the problem lies in the attitude towards Service. I think it is because the Rail authorities are not willing enough to understand the viewpoint of a passenger. This attitude may stem from the fact that the Railways has almost monopolistic control over long distance travel (a majority in our country cannot afford air travel and bus services are too cumbersome). It doesn’t matter whether a customer (in this case a passenger) is satisfied with the services or not, (s)he would return as (s)he does not have anywhere else to go. The monopolistic reign would continue in foreseeable future – had the Rail operations opened to other players like the Airlines, Indian Railways would have been staring at a fate similar to the national carrier (Air India/Indian Airlines).

The other reason could be the resource/fund crunch that you have been experiencing while running the operations. But now you have increased the fares reasonably; you have also introduced the concept of 'Premium' trains and variable pricing in Tatkal tickets – iff you falter now, you would be left with very flimsy reasons to defend the level of your services. And though it is always an unwise option to fund one operation from another asset (and it is none of my business to advise you on how to manage your assets/resources), Railways would find itself on a financially sound pitch if it starts monetizing its assets (large tracts of land) by clever mix of commercial and public projects.

P.S: As a child I was always fascinated with trains. In fact I was one of your biggest fans. As I grew up, I started noticing the gap in the services provided by the Railways. The last few experiences have not been great. I wish India would see a paradigm shift in the way Railways offers its services in coming days. Start by getting rid of the rat menace on trains so that I can have my vengeance.

While I write this to you, I am making this mail public through online mediums including my blog. I hope you would not mind this discretion. I am also attaching a few pictures of the ‘devastation’ caused by the ‘Rat Hercules’ for your reference.

Best Regards,

Rahul Shanu

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