It’s around 7.30 am on Wednesday, and at the Chandrapura railway station in Jharkhand’s Bokaro district, Subroto Bose, 25, is greeted by an early morning buzz, created by a posse of policemen and escort vehicles — Sumos, Boleros, Tata Safaris and motorcycles — trooping in ahead of opposition leader Babulal Marandi.
Marandi, president of the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik), is set to walk the entire 34-km rail stretch between Chandrapura station and neighbouring Dhanbad, to protest against the closing down of the Chandrapura-Dhanbad railway line, the lifeline for passengers from Bokaro to Howrah in one direction, and up to Ranchi in the other. The stretch, rendered unsafe by the over 100-year-old subterranean fires raging under coalfields in Jharia, was shut down on June 15.
Officials estimate that closure of the line, which has led to the cancellation of 19 trains, including six passenger trains, and diversion of seven express trains, has hit at least 13,000-14,000 daily commuters.
Bose, a resident of Dugdha locality, around 5 km from Chandrapura, is among those affected. This morning, the 25-year-old landed up at the Chandrapura station, hoping to catch the Barkakana-Gomoh passenger train, scheduled to arrive here at 7.50 am, but it is running late by a few hours. In the changed circumstances, it is one of the options the accountancy teacher has to reach his workplace — a private institute at the City Centre mall in Dhanbad.
If the train had been on time, Bose would have made it to Gomoh by 8.30 am, from where he would have had more commuting options to reach Dhanbad by 9.30 am — his reporting time at the institute. Today, however, with the train running late, that is out of the question.
Bose then joins a handful of commuters at the edge of the station’s parking lot, crowded by idle autorickshaws. He enquires if Jairam Bus — one of the 20-odd tasked by the administration to ease the crisis — has already left. The first bus, he is told, left at 7.30 am; the next one is scheduled for 8.30 am.
As he waits, Bose, who is also pursuing a chartered accountancy course, says that when he first began teaching at the institute a couple of months ago, there was no talk of the line closing down. So, the 25-year-old, the youngest of three siblings would wake up at 6.30 am, reach Dugdha railway station, closer to his home, at around 7.30 am and catch the Chandrapura-Dhanbad passenger train to reach Dhanbad by 9.15 am — “a easy and reliable commute.”
“Now, I wake up at least one hour earlier, so that I can reach Chandrapura and catch the Barkakana-Gomoh passenger to reach Gomoh and then go to Dhanbad,” he says. Gomoh in Dhanbad district is an important railway junction on what is known as the Grand Chord (Howrah-New Delhi) line — the busiest rail stretch in India.
With the next bus a while away, Bose toys with the idea of taking shared autorickshaws. A rickshaw driver, Sunny, tells him the route — from Chandrapura to Baghmara (around 25 km), from where Bose would have to take another autorickshaw to Katras (around 15 km), before taking a third to Dhanbad (around 15 km). The cumulative distance of 55 km would cost around Rs 60, a sharp increase from the Rs 20 he pays for the train journeys.
Sunny insists that the prices haven’t been hiked since the line closure and, in fact, claims that the trip wouldn’t be profitable if there aren’t adequate passengers. “Ekdum notebandi waala jhatka diya June 15 ko (The June 15 shock was quite like the demonetisation announcement),” Sunny says, adding many were thinking of relocating their vehicles to some other place.
Bose settles for the bus, even though it takes a slightly longer route, reasoning that that the hassle of changing several autorickshaws along the way isn’t worth the trouble.
The mini-bus arrives right on time, at 8.30 am, but is packed much beyond its capacity of 35 people. The helper, a diminutive young man, “Jha”, attempts to control passengers rushing to get in. Bose looks amused as Jha shouts above the din and asks passengers to wait for the others to deboard first. The accountancy teacher, with a small backpack, is among 8-10 passengers to finally make it through the only door in the bus; seats are out of question.
The conductor, with a voice deeper than the helper’s, attempts some crowd control in a rather hopeless situation — “dabiye (squeeze in)”, he shouts out, and follows it up with “aur dabiye (squeeze in a bit more)” and “andar dabiye (squeeze inside)”. When all else fails, he has “peechche chaliye (move to the rear)”.
There is little space for some but the conductor insists on taking the full fare from everybody — Rs 50 for Dhanbad, Rs 30 for Katras and Rs 20 for Baghmara.
After yet another “peechche chaliye”, Bose has had enough. “Full ho gaya hai, ab mat bhejiye (it’s already full, don’t send any more),” he shouts from the rear. The appeal, as expected, falls on deaf ears: the bus stops every few metres to pick up more people.
The only respite for passengers on this bright, sunny day, is the cool breeze blowing in from the open windows. But that too is cut short temporarily at Baghmara market, when the driver decides he needs a breakfast break.
As the bus halts, discreet enquiries have made Bose aware that at least four seated passengers are to get off at Katras, so, he chooses to hang around them. An elderly man, Satish Kumar Gupta, from Phusro in Bokaro, gets up. Bose gleefully gives way, but Gupta tells him that he just wants to use the break to relieve himself. Nevertheless, Bose takes the seat, holding on to it till Gupta returns.
The break, much to the relief of the crammed passengers, doesn’t last beyond five minutes. Gupta, the owner of a cosmetics store, begins talking to Bose and the others and reveals that he heads to Dhanbad, 55 km from Phusro, thrice a week for his weekly purchases. Gupta says he either catches the passenger train from Phusro or takes the bus to reach Chandrapura, from where he catches the passenger train to Dhanbad.
“Before June 15, I spent Rs 20 one way. Now, in the bus, I pay Rs 60 one way. My round-trip fare is now three times of what it used to be,” he says.
Bose nods, saying he too contends with similar fares. “If I don’t want to take the bus, I would have to wake up earlier than usual and catch a passenger train from Chandrapura to Gomoh. I have been trying it, but it is not possible every day,” he says.
Mahi Prasad, seated beside Gupta, brings politics to the discussion, angrily stating that the government was only interested in extracting coal and not in people’s welfare. The youngster, pursuing a degree in Dhanbad, has to get down at Katras, where he lives with his father, a retired employee of Bharat Coking Coal Limited, a Coal India Limited subsidiary, which owns most of the Jharia coalfields.
“Abdul Kalam ne likh kar diya tha ki Jharia ko sau saal kuchh nahin hoga, lekin khatra hai, khatra hai kar ke sabko ujaadne ka kaam ho raha hai (Abdul Kalam [former President] had given it in writing that nothing would happen to Jharia in the next 100 years. The government is just displacing people citing danger),” he says, adding that he has never experienced the earth caving in, due to the underground fires in Katras, the biggest township in the area. It doesn’t cut ice with Gupta, who cites reports about how dangerous the situation has actually become, but Prasad doesn’t budge. He finally gets off at Katras, angrily.
It is now 10 am and there is another hour of travel for Dhanbad. Bose is late for work. “I haven’t informed my bosses but I don’t need to. They know and have alternative arrangements in place,” he says, as he finally gets a seat. Even though there are a few standing, the bus is now relatively empty and quiet; a good time for Bose to catch up on some sleep.
Avoiding the busy market areas, the bus lurches on towards Dhanbad. At 10.40 am, Bose gets off at City Centre, after which the bus heads to its final destination — the Dhanbad railway station. “The arrangement is working fine as of now. But I will have to make it a habit to take the early train from Chandrapura; otherwise, it will become difficult to keep this job,” he says, before rushing off to his workplace.