Even to the most casual viewer, the environs of Churchgate in Mumbai are full of architectural splendour. The gothic arches of the Bombay High Court, the University Tower and the Maidan are all of a piece with imaginative town planning, although of colonial provenance. Facing this spectacular sea of human design are low-rise apartment blocks, not as early as the buildings named but yet over half a century old at least. The ground floor of these blocks are offices, restaurants and shops, all together making for a complete habitat, one not available to most of the residents of Mumbai not to mention the rest of the country. Bang in the middle of this complex, is a reminder of how Bombay had been conceived of and its raison d’etre since, as an economic hub. In the middle then is Churchgate railway station itself, at any point in time devouring and disgorging simultaneously multitudes of our fellow citizens, mostly journeying between home and work trying to earn a living and for whatever else we will never know. But of one thing anyone who has journeyed with them can be sure, it cannot be a happy journey this, with the experience during rush hour being more like hell on wheels.
I am informed by knowledgeable Mumbaikars that an estimated sixty lakh commuters use the suburban railway daily. It is difficult to imagine many other urban rapid transport systems in the world conveying passengers in such large numbers, except possibly in Japan. While making enquiries locally, I am narrated the apocryphal story of how a team of visiting transportation experts from Japan having arrived in Mumbai to advise had within moments of encountering the Indian reality done a somersault, only to beg for advice on how their counterparts managed so well in the face of such chaos! But any charm conjured up while listening to such accounts dissipates when one attempts to ride the train to Churchgate for oneself. In Mumbai’s distant suburbs the tension on the platform mounts as trains arrive already jam-packed. The train stops for about thirty seconds in each station. During this time some passengers must enter and others exit. The melee may be imagined as par for the course as poise in the presence of crowds arguably part of an Indian’s DNA. But this is not the joyful jostling of your Indian bazaar. There is something unnerving about it. Demoralised human beings, alternately exuding fear and menace, stake their claim to every inch of space in the compartment, effectively blocking any movement. The air bristles with aggression and anxiety. Only the certain knowledge that there will be no Gestapo to receive you when you are finally disgorged at Churchgate provides some mental relief while one is tossed about in this veritable cattle-wagon.
The pathetic state of the Mumbai urban rail system is first of all testimony to the indomitable spirit of the Mumbaikar who must brave this daily. But it also illustrates just what is wrong with the political discourse on the economy in general and the railways in particular. For instance, how capping foreign direct investment in telecom at x-percent is going to make the slightest difference to the living conditions of the ordinary Indian would not be apparent to any but the shadiest apparatchik. This discourse, revolving around the extent to which barriers to the private sector are to be lowered, is entirely misplaced. It is easy to see that with all of agriculture and most of the service sector effectively unrestrained by legal or even policy-induced barriers-to-entry, the scope for a significant turnaround in the condition of India’s population by tinkering with the rule book is limited. This about sums up the future of large swathes of the Indian economy under the policy of liberalisation pursued since 1991. Essentially no movement forward is possible lest the public sector shapes up. Currently it is not only a drag on the economy by consuming valuable public resources but it’s widespread inefficiency keeps economy-wide productivity stagnant. Here the public sector is being spoken of in the widest sense of the term, ranging from the utilities to the government machinery. While the cascading effect of poor quality economic infrastructure is easier to capture both conceptually and by numbers, the debilitating role of an obstructionist government machinery is more difficult to quantify even though its consequences are recognisable and manifold. More than anything else India needs a government machinery that is fit for a democracy and adopts as its mandate the facilitation of growth. Right now it functions in its pre-Independence avatar. This was captured in the observation of a distinguished Indian legal philosopher who said that India is a land of well-preserved colonial prisons and fast-decaying colonial infrastructure. Some would consider our countryman unpatriotic for thinking so. Train ride to Churchgate anyone!