By bappaditya paul
MANY of you, who even have the remotest connection to Bengal and are active on social sharing media such as WhatsApp and Facebook, must have come across the image featured above, several times in the recent past.
This a collage of two different photographs of Bollywood actress Vidya Balan ~ the first one from a photo-shoot and the second one a still from her 2007 box office hit Bhool Bhulaiya.
While the image is going round in social media for fun, it aptly makes a pointed comment on the dire state of rail travel in passenger trains that connect Kolkata to the suburbs.
Scores of people travel every day in local trains over the Sealdah and Howrah rail divisions, to commute to office and work and then return home. But the dearth of sufficient number of trains, make them commute like hordes of lesser mortals packed in a box.
Over time, this has become a common scene on all trains plying to and from Kolkata, especially during the morning office hours and the evening home return hours. The scene in the trains on Sealdah-Bongaon, Sealdah-Dankuni, Sealdah-Barasat and Sealdah-Ranaghat is worst, to say the least.
Late running of trains, which has become a routine in the past few months, is only worsening the situation. Men literally struggle to get a toe hold on the trains; women find it no less than being molested when they travel in a general compartment.
In such a dismal state, the ladies special trains ~ Matribhoomi Local ~ introduced by Mamata Banerjee when she was railway minister, has been a relief of sort for thousands of women who need to travel daily for office and education.
Thus, it is no wonder that they reacted sharply by resorting to rail blockades at several stations in North 24-Parganas district when the railway threw open some compartments of ladies special trains for men. The decision has now been repealed with effect from 24 August on the face of the vehement opposition.
The opposition was such that violent retaliation by male commuters had failed to make the women backtrack, be it from their demand or from the rail tracks, quite literally. And mind you! This is without the presence of a political banner over their head, in a state where politics is a part of every aspect of life.
True, the women have reclaimed their exclusive claim to the ladies special trains, but male passengers are now accusing them of demanding too much of comfort in public transport.
But does the accusation hold merit?
To examine this, we need to have a relook at Eastern Railway’s recent move vis-à-vis allowing men to travel in ladies special trains.
Going by this, in case of 12-coach ladies special trains, 6 middle coaches were opened to men. This is in addition to the two coaches that have all through been reserved for vendors.
In case of 10-coach trains, four middle coaches were made available to male commuters, beside the two more coaches that were marked for vendors. Likewise, in case of 9-coach trains, men were allowed to board three middle coaches and here too, two coaches have all along been reserved for vendors.
Thus, the move effectively left women passengers with only four coaches reserved for them in the ladies special trains, thus screwing up the very purpose of running a ladies special. When the women realised that they would now have to jostle for a space in trains run in their name; they took to the tracks on justified grounds.
But here’s a counter to this explanation! Why it is then that there was no fuss from the women passengers when the railway had permitted men to travel in ladies special trains in the Sealdah south section and in Howrah division, almost a year ago?
There are two answers to this.
In Howrah division, the number of local trains is higher than Sealdah. Besides, passengers in Howrah have the additional option to travel in general compartments of long distance trains that halt at most stations along the Howrah chord and main line.
As to why the women commuters in Sealdah south section did not protest the dilution of ladies special trains, one would need to study the class character of the women in South 24-Parganas.
A major chunk of women passengers in Sealdah south, whose main arteries run across the South 24-Pargans district, belong to economically and educationally weaker strata of the society. Most of them travel to Kolkata to sell agriculture produce. While they are used to the hardships of life, lack of education limit their capacity to protest.
This is not to suggest that there are no educated and office-going women in South 24-Pargans or that they do not travel by trains. But the number is much less.
In comparison, North 24-Pargans district has many industrial belts dotting around the railway network and the women who take the trains from there are mostly educated, at least a vast majority of them are.
They travel to go to office ~ both public and private, or for education. These women are aware of their rights and have the voice to protest. This is exactly what they recently did to oppose the dilution of ladies special trains.
It is true that the men in Bengal travel in trains in more difficult situation than the women and to reduce their plight, there is a need to increase the number of trains and run them punctually.
Curtailing on the women’s public space, what Eastern Railway had tried to do, is certainly not the answer.
(Bappaditya Paul is editor of NEWSMEN, West Bengal, India. This article first appeared on www.newsmen.in on 22 August 2015)