Saturday, 10 December 2011

Greener than we care to know

One evening on my street in Cotonou, Benin, I found four children playing under a table. The boy was pouting "brrruuuu", turning an imaginary steering wheel and shifting imaginary gears. The girls were passengers. 

The scene was similar, though a generation and a continent away. I have taken turns to be the driver and the passenger in imaginary cars in my childhood. I have had cordial as well as quarrelsome companions during my imaginary rides.

My primary ambition those days was to become a bus driver. It filled me with power thinking about it. On bus rides I would sit as close to the driver as possible, and keep his actions under constant surveillance. Back home I imitated his body language - reaching out with the left hand to shift gears or stretching with the right to press the bulb horn outside the door. I used to be particularly impressed with the power that his high position on the road gave him; he could look down at other erring motorists and shout.

My father worked with the then undivided Madhya Pradesh Government, and travel to Kerala on holidays involved long train rides. Steam engines had rhythm in their voice. In the early 1970s, in Bhilai steel township we could hear the engine coasting into the station over the sound of neighborhood gossip. The pistons clunked to a stop when the driver shut off steam. Clunk, clunk, clunk.

However, the diesel engine drivers impressed me more than their sweaty, black-with-soot, bandana-headed counterparts in the steam engines. Electric engines, which I saw only when we came close to Madras Central, were too quiet and smooth for my imagination. The diesel engine drivers were a picture of authority as the train came into the station, one hand on the window and other on the bright-blue control panel. The diesel engines embodied power, even when idling, when the silence was interspersed with ghud-ghud-ghud of turning motors.

I did not know, then, that more than the "authority" that a young boy saw in these occupations, these men did an environment-friendly job, transporting more humans and material spending minimal resource.

Imagine a long-haul train from Chennai to New Delhi - 25 coaches with 70 passengers on an average in each coach would mean transporting 1,750 men/women/children with one engine. There is one mouth to feed with fuel and one exhaust to take care of, i.e. if we assume that it is a diesel engine that is pulling the rakes. Since most of the main lines are electrified in India, the power to pull the train comes from a grid originating from a centralized power plant, thereby making it easier to deal with the exhaust.

We Indians take our rail and train network for granted. There may not be a man or woman of my generation who hasn't played train with friends in childhood – koo-chuk-chuk. Steam engines were mostly eased out by the time my son was growing up, but I did see him and friends snaking their way through our apartments. However, what we take for granted as a convenient and affordable means to move from point A to point B in our country does not exist as an option in many other parts of the world.

The rail line between Lome and Kpalime
in Togo disappears into the bush
Though the colonial masters laid the initial foundation for the rail network, Independent India systematically worked to strengthen and expand the infrastructure. In the past 30 months, I have lived in and traveled through four countries in West Africa. These countries too had gone through a colonial past – three under the French and one under the British. They too have had a few rail lines developed during the colonial period. The colonial motive was the same as in India – the railways were primarily designed for moving resources and troops that could be used for moving ordinary people. However, unlike in India, the rail system has not grown in these countries post-Independence.

Connecting urban centers and even villages with each other with a rail network is no more a challenge in India. The challenge is to see how the railways can be used to transport people within cities.

With the exception of Chandigarh, Lutyens Delhi and industrial townships such as Bhilai, most of the urban centers in India have grown organically from villages or cluster of villages. Laying rail lines through these unplanned urban centers and running trains through them is not an easy task – not only as an engineering exercise, but also as a political decision.

Trains for intra-city transport have the greatest advantage that any commuter can ask for in a city. They travel through secured passages and thereby have control over their running times.

During his three-year study in a college in Tambaram outside Chennai, my son knew exactly how many minutes his train travel from Kodambakkam would take. What he could never judge was the time needed to drive a scooter from Virugambakkam to Kodambakkam to catch the train. And since he knew there were trains every five minutes, it was something like stepping onto a conveyor belt at Kodambakkam and getting off at Tambaram.

Mumbai grew because of its suburban trains. So did the urban corridor between Guindy and Tambaram in Chennai. People bought property, built homes and offices along the rail corridors. The reverse challenge today is to create rail lines and run trains through areas where people have built homes and offices.

Delhi has done well with its Metro. Even in the late 1980s, a bus ride from Janakpuri to the Inter-State Bus Terminal would have taken hours. Today that travel time by Metro can be counted in minutes. Bengaluru took its first baby step recently. Kolkata, of course, prided itself for its Metro network since the 1980s.

Economic mobility in India has happened in the past two decades. Even as late as mid-1990s, there were not many families in the cities that owned cars. For most members of the generation that started their employment with the IT boom, a car (A-, B- or C-segment) has become their personal vehicle.

There is a historic and generational resistance against giving up the convenience of driving your car downtown. So if these young men and women are opting to take the metro or the suburban train, it means that they find it reliable, convenient and affordable; also environment friendly, though the commuter may not necessarily know it. The process has begun.


  1. Did the Delhi Metro a couple of weeks ago and was mighty impressed. It really has become a "great mover".

  2. good one, gopi. i love the nostalgia, and the use you have put it to. nity

  3. Nice to read this Gopi. I grew up in a railway town - and when we were children the evening summer walk would be to the station to watch those old steam engines that used to still run mainly on the metre gauge. Without trains I would be nobody. From college to work in Mumbai, I have survived because of these trains. But, always long for cleaner, better and comfortable rides.

  4. Pigo, felt like I was reading a modern day episode of Malgudi Days -loved it!

  5. Neat...took me down memory lane