As the wheels of Sampark Kranti Express slowly began turning, 23-year-old Alok Kumar had a split second to make a decision. He had tried to board the train thrice but, each time, he had been pushed away by the 20 people cramming the entrance of coach S6.
And now, there was one small window of opportunity left — right in the middle of the compartment was one window which said ‘emergency exit’. It didn’t matter what it was intended for, just that there were no bars on it. Even as the train moved, Kumar jumped in, feet first regardless of the protests he was met with. As the train to Darbhanga, Bihar, turned the corner, Kumar’s head and chest had still not completely entered. But as people at platform number 14 warned him to be careful, he laughed. “Chhath ke liye ja raha hoon, bhagwan raksha karega (I’m going home for Chatth, god will protect me),” he shouted.
Twenty minutes before his leap of faith, Kumar had arrived at the platform panting and armed with one small bag slung over his shoulder.
It was the first time the auto-rickshaw driver was going home to Bhagalpur in three years. But he knew that on the days of the Chhath rush at the New Delhi railway station, it would either be him or baggage that would make it inside.
“My wife and children are in Bhagalpur, and my mother has called me back for Chhath puja. My contractor gave me leave only on Monday, and I had to rush to the station. Every general and sleeper coach is packed. Log abhi se latak rahe hai. Pata nahi kaise chadhoonga (Already people are spilling out. I don’t know how I will board the train),” he said. And then he made the jump.
On the door of each sleeper coach were the numbers “1-75”.
But as RPF constable Sanjeev Singh urged people to make room inside the train, he said there were at least 200 people in each.
“Where one person should sit, there are four. Entire families are travelling in the toilets of the general and sleeper compartments. We can control the situation on the platform to avoid a stampede, but we do not have the authority to prevent people from boarding the train. And sometimes, even after the train moves, people hang on to the handlebars,” he said.
Many hung from the doors, some with their arms wrapped around the bar, others holding on to fellow passengers.
On Saturday, Ramesh Rai, lost his life when he fell and came between the platform and the train. Another passenger, Ghanshyam, had fallen with him, but escaped with injuries.
Peering through the steel bars of one of the trains windows, Pooja Rai, with three young children on her lap, said, “I had read about it, but there was no choice. This happens every year. For 16 hours, we will have to travel like this and prevent ourselves from going to the toilet, because of the people inside. But there is no choice. It is for Chhath.”