Riding the Rails to Chennai

Bengaluru train station
Bengaluru train station

Chennai           Railroads are serious transportation in the giant expanse of India.  The trains are old, but reliable.  The amenities are not bare, but nonexistent, many of which are filled by hawkers jumping on from station to station selling tea, coffee, chai, samosas, hot tins of food, heaping buckets of food, purses, knickknacks, and pens, giant pens twice the normal length.

Our journey from Bengaluru to Chennai started at 3pm, scheduled to arrive in Chennai six hours later at 9pm.  We pulled off within minutes of the schedule and creeped out of the station until we were well out of the city.  This made it easier for the runners with their bags and sometimes whole families to lope across the track and jump on the train through one or the other of the open doors.  They could then stand with others until their destination or be asked off and try again on the next train.  Their predicament was not totally different from later boarders who might have bought a ticket where the station master assigned a seat without knowing or perhaps caring that someone had already purchased the seat and had been occupying it down the line for hours.  This happened frequently and enlivened the trip for some.

 

 

Suresh at the start
Suresh at the start
My Seat
My Seat

The fares are cheap.  Much cheaper than buses for example.  Less than $10 for our trip from what I could figure, and the trains carry a load.  The benches face each other and each hold three people on each side.  None of this armrest nonsense either.  So that’s twelve per row.  There were 29 cars in our train.  Conservatively there were 20 rows per car.  Could there really have been a 7000 person capacity on that train?  Surely there were some cars not filled fully or my math is wrong?  Let’s just knock 2000 people off the train and call it 5000.  That’s still a lot of people riding the rails to Chennai with us.

 

good place to hang your stuff
good place to hang your stuff

The windows are open.  There are bars though not respected.  Many of my seatmates were frustrated that they were unable to open the bars on my window seat for example, thinking it would convenience me more.  There was a drawing that instructed the means for opening the bars in an emergency, but that was not seen as relevant.  When the train was up to full power we had a good breeze.  There were multiple fans coming from the ceiling along with the fluorescent lights, but I was unsure how many fans were functional.

 

rocks in Andra Praseh, like the west!
rocks in Andra Praseh, like the west!

The scenery was amazing.  The contrast from one eight million person city to another four and a half million person city was largely one of complete and total rural villages and scenes fixed in time for centuries.  Two oxen were plowing one field along the way with a man driving them from behind.  Numerous goat and sheepherders stood unmoved by the passing train as they watched their flocks.  We watched a funeral and much else.  There were small towns and there were mud brick thatched roof houses a plenty.  Some low rise, rocky rises made me think of the US West though seeing them tower over coconut trees was hard to reconcile.

across the bench neighbor
across the bench neighbor

IMG_3036

 

IMG_3043

It all worked remarkably well.  Everyone seemed to understand the drill and settle into it.  The biggest excitement other than duplicate seating was a young man’s lost mobile phone that brought a half dozen outside the train for a look around the tracks for a purpose that escaped me, and was unsuccessful as expected.

lost mobile prompts a search at a train stop
lost mobile prompts a search at a train stop

We jumped out at Chennai into a bustling, black, humid night none the worse for wear and better for the experience.

 

Chennai train station
Chennai train station

***

It is two for Tuesday, thanks to Kabf.

Please enjoy

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s Unfair Weather Friend

Alabama Shakes’ Future People

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Street Sellers are not Cage Dwellers

Hawker Cage
Hawker Cage

Bengaluru       Visiting the Yesvantpur markets at dawn on a Sunday morning gave our whole ACORN team a better way of understanding the issues some of members were facing and what our union needed to do to address some of them in the future.

As soon as we saw our members in vegetable market spreading out their goods along the sidewalk and unpacking bags of produce, with their carts either nowhere visible or parked across the street and out of the way, I understood this was a different day entirely.  Not only was this due to it being a Sunday market where they were expecting three times the sales, but I finally understood why they were complaining that they were selling so much less on regular days from their carts.

Essentially, they were working in the vise of a tough compromise between two conflicting courts trying to make the new rights to livelihood that the Street Vendors Act of 2014 had given them actually work for them.  A complaint had arisen about the street vendors being on the footpath and the High Court of Karnataka had ordered them removed.  The Indian Supreme Court though had upheld the right to livelihood guaranteed by the 2014 Act which allowed them to sell.  The compromise would have split the sidewalk into sections with pedestrians getting a share and hawkers getting a share.  More practically, in Bengaluru the vendors had been forced onto carts in the street most of the week in order to share the footpath behind them, but on Sunday’s being allowed to take the whole sidewalk and let their shoppers come up to them on the street.  No one was happy, but business was business for now, though ACORN’s organizers were debating various options that would expand their access throughout the week, so there’s work to be done.

If anything, a more curious and difficult problem awaited us around the corner.  A city corporator or councilor had taken it on his own to force a solution that was almost starving some of our vendors.  With his own funds,  he had built an iron fence separating the street from the sidewalk and built one-meter square platforms where he expected the vendors to sell.  Some of the vendors had torn them down, but either way there was a problem because street sellers are not cage dwellers and only the most motivated customers could get to them on foot, and none of their customers could simply come up on a bike or scooter to make a purchase which was possible everywhere else in the stalls and on the carts.

The low fence on the city stalls worked.  There were frequent breaks allowing entry.  Shoppers were protected from traffic while walking on the portion of the street between the front of the stalls and the iron fence, and there was still enough street to even allow the giant buses to narrowly pass.  The cage though was a disaster.  Unfortunately, it would require a lot of work and no small amount of political clout to get the city itself to undue the arbitrary action of the councilor.  A number of the stalls were already vacant as vendors were voting with their feet to try and find other places in the street where they could ply their wares rather than hope people might find their way to their space.

None of the solutions are simple.  One of our leaders, who during the week is a lawyer, told us of the 60 year history of his cooking oil business started by his father that he still maintained and the 20 year history of court claims he had brought to secure their space.

No one can wait that long and survive.  It’s no secret why our street vendors’ union has had success.

fence in front of the stalls
fence in front of the stalls
carts
carts
entrance to train station
entrance to train station

***

This Land is Your Land – Billy Bragg Version (Video by a group protesting selling of public forests in UK)

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