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Author Archives: Pankaj Adhikari

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‘Google station’: Indian railways on wrong tracks

If you travel by train across India, you begin to look anew at the word “rail travel,” and revise your definition.
Overworked tracks, dirty and dinged-up coaches, commuters clinging to open doorways, late trains and cancellations, and platforms clogged with hawkers, beggars and stalls: these are indelible images of the 165-year-old Indian Railways. The sprawling network has become emblematic of Indian government structures that are at once byzantine and inefficient.
An analysis of available data show track failures and subsequent derailments are caused by excessive traffic and under-investment in rail infrastructure. Against this backdrop, the ministry of railways has roped in Google to bring free Wi-Fi services to 400 rail stations across India.
Isn’t it ridiculous?

Wi-Fi at Naihati rail station: lopsided priority

Does India need Wi-Fi at stations now? Is ‘Google station’ a priority when trains never run on time and daily commute is a nightmare; when overworked tracks make travel unsafe; when a 60-minute journey takes almost two hours and when ordinary passenger trains cannot average more than 25km an hour.
The idea of introducing free Wi-Fi at the stations across India is not just bizarre, it’s absolutely ridiculous. The amount of money the government has to shell out for the ‘Google station’ project could have been used for spending infrastructure upgrade like laying new tracks, repairing dilapidated rail lines, installing automatic signals, buying new coaches, ensuring commuters’ comfort and safety and timely running of trains.
Are the guys in Railways Board aware of the ground reality? Have they ever experienced the travails of daily travel? Do they know that millions of commuters face unimaginable ordeal daily as they travel in coaches packed like sardines. If they have slightest empathy for the commuters, they wouldn’t have gone ahead with the ‘Google station’ project.
I grew up in a suburb, 38km from Kolkata, and used to take train daily to reach my college. I know perfectly well the trauma and torment of a commuter.
I remember when the train pulled into Sealdah station relatively on time ((well, that happened very rarely), I heard someone saying “Oh! Train ta darun elo!” (performance of the train was admirable!) The guy was elated as trains are perennially late and its on-time performance on that day took him by surprise.
Dysfunction in Indian Railways is not a surprise.
There has been a 56 per cent increase in the daily tally of passenger trains over 15 years from 8,500 in 2000-2001 to 13,313 in 2015-16. The number of freight trains increased by 59 per cent in the same period, but the running track length for all these trains increased by only 12 per cent in 15 years – from 81,865 km to 92,081 km.

Indian railways: Losing train of thought

If one considers the period from 1950 to 2016, the under-investment in rail infrastructure appears all the more acute. Against 23 per cent railways’ route km expansion, passenger and freight traffic increased 1,344 per cent and 1,642 per cent respectively, the Standing Committee on Railways said in a December 2016 report on Safety and Security in Railways.
Railways minister Suresh Prabhu has said part of the problem is seven decades of under-investment.
“If India is to grow at an eight to 10 per cent, or even a slower six to eight per cent growth path, railways will need to carry a lot more freight,” says an economist who examined Indian Railways as part of a government-appointed panel. “And right now it doesn’t. It’s almost bursting at the seams.”
Economic expansion requires more power and in India, that means more coal. Hauling the coal to power stations means more rail cars. “The capacity of railways to carry coal is totally exhausted at present,” says another expert. “It is absolutely essential to expand the capacity.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said India must “take the railways forward, and through the railways, take the country forward.” The rail system should be “the backbone of our economic growth,” he added.
However, the country needs to convert about 10,000 km of tracks just to have a uniform rail gauge. There are no timetables for freight cars—goods just show up when they get there—and four out of 10 lines run at 100 per cent or more of capacity.
The rail ministry planned to spend Rs.1 trillion in 2015-16 budget with almost 42 per cent of that coming from the central government. Analysts who reviewed the accounts said the bookkeeping was so opaque as to be inscrutable.
Mr Minister, please bring along your Railways Board members to Sealdah or Howrah stations in the morning and in the afternoon and see the veritable hell the commuters are thrown in.
Please come and witness how long-distance trains are made to wait for 15 to 20 minutes to get signal at Howrah station in the morning.
Whenever a long-distance train pulls into Howrah station in the morning (especially after 6am), they are made to wait near car-shed while local trains are given signal for departure. Why are the trains made to wait for so long to get signal? Imagine the sufferings of the passengers who have been on the trains for more than a day! I’ve been observing this since my childhood. I wonder why the Indian railways can’t solve the problem yet.
For an estimated 9.2 lakh people, who commute to Kolkata from suburbs every day, travel is a nightmare. Well, the word ‘nightmare’ is an understatement.
The Eastern Railways says Sealdah, one of the busiest rail stations in India, which will celebrate its sesquicentennial (150th year) next year, cannot be expanded to handle more than the existing 917 pairs of local trains that bring in people from the suburbs. Moreover, about 80,000 people embark and disembark every day from long-distance trains that run through Sealdah.
The ER authorities say the number of commuters who land in Kolkata by local trains every day, will cross the 10-lakh mark by 2020.

Sealdah station: Sea of humanity
Photo: Sudip Acharya

The ER says capacity augmentation is impossible due to encroachment along the tracks. Meanwhile, successive regimes in West Bengal have not only turned a blind eye to the blatant and rampant encroachments, but also encouraged them as part of their vote banks politics.
Mr Minister, do you know most of the footbridges at major rail stations across the country are without ramps and passengers face huge difficulties in carrying their luggage? It’s not difficult to set things right. Will you please look into such glaring mistakes?
Sir, you’ve traveled abroad and seen how rail bridges are built. I’m sorry to say your civil engineers don’t even know the basics of building a bridge. A footbridge over Naihati rail station has been built recently. It’s just awful! Please come and take the stairs up the bridge. It’s so steep. I’m sure you’d puff and pant.
Sir, please spare a thought for the millions of commuters and their daily ordeal. Instead of ‘Google station’, what is badly needed are more trains, improved tracks, increase of trains’ average speed, cleaner coaches, and timely running of trains.
I’m reminded of an old saying: “The right train of thought can take you to a better station in life.”
Are the guys in Railways Board listening?

Daily commute: an unspeakable ordeal
Photo: Sudip Acharya


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Croatia offers hope to every small country with big dreams

Few know there’s a city named Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. It’s only after Croatia reached the World Cup soccer final, people take note of it.
Croatia, with a population of just 4.2 million, is the smallest nation to reach the tournament final since Uruguay in 1950. It reached that point by coming from behind in the second half of three consecutive games, all of which required 30 minutes of extra time to settle (two on penalty-kick tiebreakers).
As the jubilant French team was basking in the glory of their second World Cup title at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, the downpour hid tears streaming from the eyes of the fallen Croatians, whose heroic run through soccer’s ultimate testing ground offered hope to every small country with big dreams.

The Croatia national team

Croatia may have lost the most famous title of international soccer, but their terrific team spirit and incredible never-say-die attitude finally won. The amount of hearts Croatia won in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and Pacific is amazing.
As I was reading Croatia Week, which is published from Zagerb, I was moved by the comments made by a Croatian.
“We are so used to bad news in Croatia, about the economy, unemployment, people fleeing the country etc. Croats are the people who know their limits, maybe too well. Maybe so well that after years they became self-imposed. This team taught us that we are not prisoners of bad news and that with effort, hard work, practice and knowledge we can beat the odds and go beyond our limits.”
Yes, the soccer team has proved Croatians are not the prisoners of bad news.
“Sometimes we feel so alone. We are a small economy, our bureaucracy repeals foreign businesses. We feel alone even in Croatia, divided by the left and right and pro and against and class and income. It’s true people do manage to gather to oppose something or someone but rarely do we feel united in a positive way. And that’s exactly what happened when all people united in unprecedented happiness and joy,” the Croatian commented.

Coach Zlatko Dalic

One person who especially stuck out was the coach, Zlatko Dalić. His incredible sense of measure and sportsmanship, even in most euphoric situations after major wins, always congratulating the opponents, never underestimating the next opponent, putting the team first when it comes to results, is amazing. What an incredible man!
Dalic said: “On our bus there is a slogan: ‘Small Country With Big Dreams’. You have to believe it’s possible. You have to have a dream and ambition, and then maybe it will come true — in football or in life.”

Lesson: The Croatians have taught that being humble, sportsman spirit and never giving up is the ultimate winner.


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When will Indian media come of age?

Has anyone noticed the media frenzy in India that began more than a month before the World Cup football began? Has anyone seen that front-pages of all Indian newspapers are awash with soccer stories?
You’ll come across this madness in India only. It’s not the first time that we’re witnessing this madness (there’s no method in this!). We are familiar with this fatuous infatuation with sport which comes every four year.
Unfortunately, India’s football ranking is woefully poor (India currently ranks 97th). I wonder why Indian media has been going overboard year after year and carrying soccer stories on front page even though our country couldn’t even qualify now for the Asian Games.
Aren’t there news worth reporting on front page? Can’t these stories be reported on Sport page? It reflects Indian media’s mediocrity and sheer immaturity.

Times of India front page on July 9

The Telegraph front page

Ananda Bazar Patrika (a Bengali newspaper published from Kolkata) front page

I’ve traveled in Paris when the French Open was underway. I was in New York when the US Open was going on. But, I’ve never come across the media’s such infatuation with sport. Le Monde, New York Times or Washington Post never reported sport news on their Front Pages during the French Open or the US Open.
Those who watched Japan-Belgium tie will agree that Japan had played an unbelievable game. They lost in the dying minutes of additional time. It was a heartbreaking defeat for Japan. A win would have secured the team’s first-ever advancement to the World Cup quarter finals.
But, the next day Japan Times, the leading English paper in Japan, didn’t carry the news of their country’s heroic efforts in the World Cup on its front page. The news was reported in Sport page only.
I wonder what Indian media would have done if India did the same thing. All pages of newspapers would have been filled with sport news!
Look at The Guardian. Even after England qualified for the semi finals after 28 years, the front page of The Guardian didn’t carry the news as lead story.
A nation’s mindset and maturity may be measured on how its media think and what kind of role it plays. When will Indian newspapers come of age?
Are you guys listening? Grow up, Indian media.
Footnote: I was disappointed to see that Indian newspapers didn’t carry the news of Japanese team’s sportsmanship and fair play the way it should. FIFA General Director Priscilla Janssens tweeted a picture of Japan’s spotless dressing room after the defeat, praising the team and their fans for their tidy-up efforts and manners and also writing that the team had left a ‘thank you’ note in Russian for the hosts.
Look at the Indian media. They’ve underplayed such sterling gestures by the Japanese players and fans. Shouldn’t Indian media highlight the news? This should have been on the front pages of newspapers.
We should learn from the Japanese people. We should learn from their dignity in defeat.


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Let Bengal learn from Sikkim

Destination: Rinchenpong, West Sikkim
As our Bolero reached Rangpo, a town in east Sikkim bordering with Bengal, and penetrated the white wall of morning mists, we were greeted with a visual marvel. Melting snows giving birth to mighty waterfalls, lush green valleys, roaring rivers and steep hillsides created a picture of paradise on earth.
A Sikkimese cop strode up to our car at the border and wanted to see our I-cards. “Just one I-card is enough,” he said, his politeness and refinement unmistakable. (Are Bengal cops listening?)
I gave him my I-card. “Welcome to Sikkim. Enjoy your trip,” the cop said. The policeman’s cordiality and warmth of feeling touched me.

Kingly Kanchenjunga from Rinchenpong,

Even though we were groggy (Teesta-Torsha pulled into the NJP station at 2.40am and we had to wait till 5.30am for the car), the stunning sights around whipped us into a frenzy.
Leaving Rangpo behind, our car drove up the hill’s winding roads. The morning sun caressed the meandering Teesta creating a mystic ambience. I was mesmerized by Nature’s majestic beauty.
We reached Melli, 22km from Rangpo around 9.30am.
Melli lies both in Bengal and Sikkim. The part of the town in Bengal is called Melli Bazaar. The town lies on NH 31A connecting Siliguri to Gangtok. Melli is the main entry point for West and South Sikkim districts. Jawaharlal Nehru Bridge, the longest bridge in Sikkim, connects the two parts of the town.

Misty morning at Ravangla, south Sikkim

We got off the car and walked into a wayside restaurant for breakfast. We had steaming vegetable momos and tea.
Melli is located 7 km upstream from Teesta Bazaar. On the Sikkim side lies Yuksom Brewery which produces most of the beer in the region. The brewery and a biscuit factory are the major industries in the region. One can go for river rafting here.
The car then left Melli Bazaar for Rinchenpong, 62km away. On our way, we saw innocent faces of Sikkimese children as they walk to their school; we also saw people arranging their wares in the middle of the market. Then came our driver’s warning: “Don’t throw anything on roads through window.” He added: “Plastic is banned and smoking in public places forbidden in Sikkim.” My friend Bapi was let down by the sudden announcement. “Well, you can smoke inside your hotel rooms,” said the driver.
Bapi sighed in relief.

Chowk Bazar, Ravangla: Cleanliness is Sikkim’s hallmark

We reached Rinchenpong (5600ft) around 12.30pm. The soothing noontime sun welcomed us as our car came to a halt at Rinchenpong bazaar. I was stunned by the spick-and-span marketplace.
Our hotel Denzong Residency was a few paces up the hill from Rinchenpong bazaar. The hotel guys came and took our luggage. Our third-floor room offered a breathtaking view of Mt. Khanchendzonga.
We were thrilled.
What struck me about the Rinchenpong bazaar was its tranquility and quietude. I haven’t seen such a noise-free bazaar anywhere in India. Sikkimese people are soft-spoken and well-mannered. During my week-long stay in Sikkim I didn’t encounter any brawls or altercations there. Let me share an incident: I went to the Axis Bank ATM near Ravangla chowk to withdraw money. My friend Bapi and I stood in the queue. As our turn came, we walked into the kiosk. The ATM’s display monitor was a tad different from what we have in Kolkata. So it took some more time for us to take money. There were as many as nine people waiting in the queue. But no one shouted at us nor was there any angry outburst. They waited patiently. This is amazing.
Can anyone in Bengal think of such a scenario? I was stunned by their civility and gentility.
Will the Bengalees take a lesson?

When will Bengal learn from Sikkim?

Sikkim, which in 1998 became the first Indian state to ban disposable plastic bags, is among the first to target single-use plastic bottles. “In 2016, Sikkim took two major decisions. It banned the use of packaged drinking water in government offices and government events. Second, it banned the use of Styrofoam and disposable thermocol plates and cutlery in the entire state to cut down toxic plastic pollution and tackle its ever-increasing garbage problem,” said Rajendra Pradhan, a school teacher, sitting at his home-cum-shop near the Rinchenpong bazaar.
“From April this year, we’ve banned import of all vegetables from Bengal,” Pradhan said.
I hung my head in shame.

The Singshore Bridge, Pelling, west Sikkim: Asia’s second highest bridge

Sikkim was declared the first organic state in the country which means all food produced in Sikkim is free of pesticides. It is also India’s first state to ban open defecation. Urinating in public can cost Rs 500.
The government has made it mandatory to have a sanitary toilet at home to be eligible for any benefits or to contest in village-level elections. This has resulted in the success of the program which was envisaged long before Swachch Bharat Campaign (Clean India Campaign) was even conceptualized. The state even banned firecrackers in 2014 to contain noise and air pollution.
“Sikkim is a rapidly evolving society. Gangtok, Namchi and Jorethang are urbanizing at a steady pace. Gangtok will be connected by air soon. (SpiceJet has already made trial flights). More and more people are being attracted by business opportunities.
“Though Sikkim is predominantly a Buddhist state its spirit is secular and churches, monasteries, gurdwaras, mosques and temples co-exist peacefully here.
“It’s hard to define the true culture of Sikkim. It could be called a wonderful mosaic, a unique pattern made beautiful by the unusual harmony in its individually colorful threads. And that is its trait.
The Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalese are the predominant communities and there have been inter-racial marriages among the three over the years,” said Pradhan.

Another interesting thing I observed: One could hardly see the photos or festoons featuring Pawan Kumar Chamling on the roads of Sikkim. Chamling has surpassed the record of former Bengal CM Jyoti Basu by becoming the longest serving chief minister of any Indian state. “If a CM sincerely works for the people of his state, is there any need to hang his photos or festoons?” said Somnath Pradhan, a shopkeeper at Ravangla chowk.
Compare this with Bengal: Photos of Bengal CM have adorned the streets, roads and hills of the entire state. Wherever one goes, he or she will see the CM’s photos and posters.
What a waste of money! What an eyesore!
Is the Bengal leadership listening?


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‘Drunk Shakespeare’ on Broadway a must-see for New York City visitors

It was January 8. The New York City was going through the longest spell of freezing days since 1961. Undeterred by the bone-chilling cold, Suparno booked two tickets for Drunk Shakespeare, a Broadway show on the 8th Avenue.

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‘Porch pirates’ make merry in festive season

Thieves make hay while Santa shines.
Call it the flip side of affluence or what you will. Come Christmas, ‘porch pirates’ are a growing problem in neighborhoods across the United States. Over 25 million Americans have been victims of holiday package robbery this year, an increase from 23 million porch thefts in 2015.
A national survey in 2015 by Princeton Survey Research associate found 23 million people were victims of ‘porch pirates’.

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Fabulous fall color at breathtaking Bear Mountain, NY

The noontime November sun was caressing Caldwell, NJ. There was a softness in the air and the 62F temperature was pretty much perfect for a long drive.
My friend Suparno told me to get ready to see the fall foliage at Bear Mountain State Park in New York State, 51 miles away. I was ecstatic.

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