The results of the Bihar elections will show whether caste or creed has triumphed, or whether development has trumped them both. The elections have generated so much hot air that I thought readers might like a cool, calm reflection on development. So I am going to tell a melancholy story, perhaps it could be called a parable, to illustrate the point that development doesn’t come without a cost. The development in this case is the closure on September 30 of the Satpura narrow gauge railway — the longest 2’6’’ railway in the world. It is making way for the broad gauge — surely you might think a totally positive development.
Whenever I crossed the Satpura line driving from Jabalpur to Kanha National Park, a gloomy thought came to me, ‘I suppose no one travels on this line any more’. But I was forgetting the jam-packed narrow-gauge train I once saw in Gujarat. When I asked a station-master why the train was so popular when there was a faster bus running along a road parallel with the track, he replied, ‘Simple. We don’t bother to collect the fares, the bus does.’
The Satpura narrow gauge system’s main line linked Jabalpur and Nagpur. It was not a toy train, as narrow gauge trains are all too often described. The line was more than a thousand kilometres long and was built as a ‘famine line’, intended to deliver food in this remote area during famines. When the line closed, 20 trains a day were still passing through Nainpur junction, the heart of the railway.
I was invited by India Railways to travel in the inspection carriage attached to one of the last Satpura trains. When I arrived at Jabalpur station I was agreeably surprised to find a sizeable crowd waiting for my train even though its fastest speed it would be just 40 km an hour. Those passengers had all bought tickets.
On my journey I discovered the purposes of many of the passengers’ journeys. I met a middle-class group travelling to bathe in the Narmada. I talked to a student who travelled home every week, an elderly military man who was on his way to see a hospital consultant, a mother with her baby going to visit her parents. The whole world and his wife seemed to travel the Satpura route. They travelled in such numbers that there often wasn’t room for all of them inside the carriages. Some stood precariously on the steps outside the carriage and some took recourse to the roofs.
Why were they travelling by this slow and apparently uncomfortable train? One reason I was given was that, for all the overcrowding, it was more comfortable than the bus. The train came to the doors of some passengers. Apart from regular stations, it stopped at Passenger Halts, remote places where the villagers had asked for a stop.
For some the railway was their livelihood. Each station had a full complement of staff presided over by the senior station master. There was a British Raj period bungalow with a terraced garden for the Junior Engineer in charge of the linesmen who patrol the track. I imagine the railways will absorb the staff, but what about Shri Hari Singh Thakur, famous for his samosas, retailing at twelve rupees for two at Bargi station or Lakshmi Chand Khandelwal at Shikkara, renowned for his sweets? The Satpura railway accommodates nature. After Nainpur, on the way to Chindwara and Nagpur the track wriggles snake-like following the contour lines through a thick, hilly forest. The broad gauge is fighting nature. In the forest I saw an ugly red gash where trees had been hacked down to make way for it as it’s bulldozed through the forest. The broad gauge will not have much time for those who have lost their lifeline. There will be little or no space for local trains.
The lesson, for me at least, of this parable, this requiem for a railway, is that development always comes at a cost, and whatever can be done to mitigate the cost should be done. In this case I hope the railways will do as little damage as possible to the forest, and the government will ensure there is a new lifeline for the narrow gauge passengers. Even if development does trump caste and creed in Bihar, for politicians the lesson of this parable is that development, whose downside is too deep, too costly, will lose them votes. The railways do realise they are losing a unique heritage and are planning to preserve a short section of the line.
The views expressed are personal