By 10.30 am on most weekdays, the Railway Protection Force (RPF) station at Kurla resembles a class full of nervous children caught in the act loudly protesting their innocence. They have no idea what’s in store for them when the salon door swings open and the officers stand at attention as Inspector Suresh Atri walks in.
“Stand in a straight line. Let me look at all your faces,” he commands a group of 29 men, all freshly caught on Thursday morning crossing railway tracks. The men shuffle and fidget, looking more restless than frightened at what is to come. As his subordinates begin filming on their cell phones, Atri asks each offender what made him cross the track. Thane resident Nilesh says he was rushing to Cama Hospital in South Mumbai. Mukhtar Ahmad says he was late for work. Another man claims he didn’t know it was a crime to cross the tracks on foot.
“Would you people prefer late to be a prefix or a suffix in your names? Would you like to be ‘Late Mukhtar Ahmad’ or ‘Mukhtar Ahmad who was late?’….If you get hit by a train while crossing, there is a 99 per cent chance that you will die. There is only a 1 per cent chance that you will survive, but you will be dependent on someone else for the rest of your lives….There are five foot over-bridges at Kurla railway station, so I don’t know why you people insist on crossing the tracks,” thunders Atri while his audience looks on shame-faced.
But Atri isn’t done yet. As if to anticipate a reply, he says, “The RPF has more important things to do like preventing thefts. We are already short-staffed, and because of you we have to deploy men to stop people dying on the tracks. You can empower us by becoming disciplined and changing your attitudes.”
Atri ends his sermon by making the men take a pledge, right hands stuck out. “Hum vaada karte hain ki aindaa deri hone par, ya kisi anya kaaran se rail patri cross nahi karengey, aur doosre logon ko bhi aisa karne se rokengey, aur apne samaj ke liye apna anushasan palan ka uchit yogdaan dengey. Pakka? Thank you.” It is only then that charges are filed against the men and they are taken to the railway court at CSMT railway station, where paying a maximum fine of Rs 500 will set them free.
The “counseling sessions”, as Atri likes to call them, are the latest in the line of psychological efforts that the RPF has mounted over the last two years to curb deaths from track crossings. Atri began playing on the minds of offenders by dressing up two constables as Yamaraj, the Hindu God of Death, and having them patrol platforms and rail tracks while also getting patrolling policemen to wear t-shirts bearing slogans like “Follow the rule, don’t be a fool.”
Numbers show the efforts seem to be working. At least 18 people died of crossing tracks in 2018 as opposed to 30 in 2017 at Kurla station while four were injured in both years. Atri also gives presentations at colleges and addresses crowds during festivals to drive home the point.
Only those offenders with a genuine emergency are let off with a reminder to attend court at a later date, after they issue a written apology and a promise to not repeat the offence. “We had a student today who had an exam to write in half an hour. We kept a copy of his Aadhar Card. If he doesn’t attend court, a non-bailable warrant will be issued against him,” adds Atri (50).
Most offenders are caught at the harbour line platforms and at the northern ends of platforms five and six during morning the rush hour, the RPF says. Atri’s attempts to introduce discipline have seen passengers illegally travelling in compartments reserved for the disabled made to walk using crutches and wheeled around on wheelchairs, while sarees are kept in handy for men encroaching in women’s compartments. “Even if the message gets across to five people caught every day, that is a lot of lives saved,” he says.