At 9.24 am on a Wednesday, as the Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) travelling from Kosi Kalan to Ghaziabad pulls into Platform No. 1 of the Old Faridabad Railway Station, the passengers who have been waiting at the platform stir from their reverie, and begin gathering their belongings, preparing to shove their way into the 12 bogeys. The sight is both terrifying and exciting. Even from a distance, it is clear that the train approaching the platform has no space to accommodate the people looking hopefully at it. Hands and even bodies can be seen hanging dangerously out of the open doors of the coaches — a white, full-sleeve T-shirt clad arm pressed tightly against a bare one, whose owner is clad only in a vest and a pair of grey trousers. A third man, middle-aged and neatly dressed, stands gingerly next to them, his right arm and leg dangling out.
Then, as the train draws to a screeching halt, “space” is miraculously created. The occupants start jumping out, either onto the platform or the tracks on the other side, notwithstanding the risk, and hurrying away. Shyam Chandra, 47, is among the lucky ones who elbows his way in, to take their place. Should he have missed this train, he would have to wait for two hours for the next. In less than two minutes, with its 12 coaches bursting to capacity, the train takes off.
A mechanic at a car workshop in Okhla in Delhi, 17 km away, Chandra says he has been taking this 9.24 local (give or take a few minutes) to his workplace for 30 years. He returns only 12 hours later to his home in Faridabad, in another local train, once more packed to full capacity. Like his schedule, he says, the situation in the train has “hardly changed” in the three decades he has been using it, down to the number of people taking it. The minor changes may be in the number of bogeys, or timings.
“The trains along this route are always crowded. I rarely get a seat, except maybe Sunday, since most people are not working that day. I either have to travel standing or, if I am lucky, get space to sit on the floor,” Chandra says. With no space inside to even move an elbow, the fans overhead fight a failing battle against the heat and humidity, and sweat patches quickly appear on clothes of passengers. An unintentional poke by one passenger’s elbow invites a glare from another.
It was along this route between Palwal and New Delhi, on one such local, that Junaid Khan was stabbed to death in June in a fight that began over seats and soon allegedly became communal. Last week, two people, one of whom later succumbed to his injuries, were pushed off a train, along the same stretch allegedly during a fight over seats. Police are investigating the case, so far only admitting that the fight began over a “petty issue”. Passengers talk of frequent such fights over seats and space, although more verbal than violent.
Explaining why he hasn’t been in such a fight, Chandra laughs. “It is not even an option for those of us who travel during peak hours, and board from these stations, since the train is already very crowded. We don’t even get near the seats, usually we are stuck at the door itself. So there is no opportunity for us to fight for one.” He also attributes it to “empathy”. “We travel by this route everyday. Today you may have a seat, but tomorrow you may be forced to stand. In such a situation, commuters have some amount of understanding,” says Chandra.
Northern Railways has 23 passenger trains and 56 to 60 Mail Express trains running from Palwal to New Delhi daily, each capable of carrying 3,000 people. Officials say five times more usually travel on them, especially during the peak hours between 7 and 10 am. The distance is covered in anything between an hour and 90 minutes.
The EMU that Chandra took started from Kosi Kalan at 7.55 am, and drew into the Palwal railway station at 8.48 am. There are 21 other stations the train halts at, across Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and New Delhi, reaching its final destination, Ghaziabad, at 12 pm.
“The number of people using the service has increased over time, since the population of the National Capital Region has swelled, and this route covers many industrial and commercial areas,” says a Northern Railways official on the condition of anonymity. Police personnel at the stations in between say they do not get many complaints over fights. But an officer at Old Faridabad Railway Station, who didn’t want to be named, says it is not due to the absence of arguments. “These are all commuters in a rush, many of them poor and working as labourers or in factories. Registering cases or complaints would mean getting off the train and spending time and energy, and few people have the luxury or the patience for that,” he says.
Devki Nandan, 30, who works at a courier service in New Delhi and boards the train from Palwal to work twice a week, agrees. “As a result of the heat and crowd, people are always on the edge, so fights do break out, but I have never seen a fight that has become violent. At the end of the day, nobody in these trains has the time. If you travel in these trains for a long time, you don’t expect any personal space or preferential treatment.”
A factory worker, who goes from Palwal to Ballabgarh daily, says he had heard about Junaid Khan and the other man who died last week, Devender. Pointing out that alternative modes of transport are expensive, he says, “It would be reassuring to have more police personnel around. I have not seen any fight yet where I have been afraid that someone will be seriously injured or killed, but it is better to know that officials are there to avert such a situation.”
By the time the train makes its way to Ghaziabad, the coaches are mostly empty, and only a handful get off at the station. Its bogeys, by this point, are a sorry mess of dust, discarded newspapers, flying polythene bags, even pieces of torn cloth, and remnants of hurried breakfasts eaten by commuters. The EMU can’t rest for all the bogeys to be cleaned though. Depending on the situation on other routes of the Northern Railway’s network, it will now either return the way it came or be sent off along another route.