Rail Budget And India’s Floating Population

Even as the railway budget was being presented, a red light shone at a distance. A shrill train whistle pierced the relative monotony of the platform.

Scores of disheveled men and women leap up from their perches and jostle among themselves as the general bogie of the train rumbles in. Handkerchiefs are thrown through the open window inside the compartment to obliging passengers who claim a seat for them. Even as the train struggles to cease locomotion, it is encumbered by everyone clambering amidst much ruckus on to the bogie. Voices are raised, adjustments made, the luggage rack occupied by the more enterprising ones and the washroom by the valiant before the train finally leaves, heaving and sighing in its wake. It is not uncommon for the floor of the bogie to be entirely occupied by those too tired to stand. Answering nature’s call is completely out of the question, unless and until several people get down at once clearing the path and the washroom simultaneously.

Scenes like this are an everyday feature in all major train stations in India. Most of them are a part of India’s ‘commuting’ or ‘floating’ population, travelling frequently in search of job opportunities and a better standard of living. In the 2009-10 railway budget, it was estimated that there were about  8.05 million rural to urban commuters, 4.37 million urban to rural commuters and 12.2 million workers with no fixed place of residence. With the number of job opportunities having increased in both rural and urban sectors, as well as a spurt in the working age population, one can only expect this number to have increased since then.

Many of them will work on weekdays in some project and travel back on weekends. This frequency, however, also depends upon the wages that they receive, as well as the distance between their place of residence and the workplace. Apart from travelling in such conditions erratic stoppages, slow speeds at intermittent stretches and delays further add to their woes.

Several proposals have been made in the Railway Budget 2014-15, the first ever by the incumbent Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, sanitation in trains and platforms as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan being one among them. As a part of this 17000 more bio-toilets will be installed. The Government has refrained from hiking fare rates over and above what was made last year, much to the relief of the common man. Passenger capacity would be increased in certain identified trains, with a proposal to increase the number of general class coaches. In order to improve punctuality and thus efficiency, the speed of passenger trains on 9 corridors will be increased to 200 km/hr.

The Government has earmarked around Rs. 8.5 lakh crore to be invested over the next five years, out of which more than 67% has been allocated for the improving passenger amenities. An Incredible Rail campaign under the aegis of Incredible India will be unfurled later. How incredible the results will turn out to be, however, only time can tell.

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