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Do Railway Tracks Serve the Public Good?

Human anxiety and excitement produces conflict between public and private spaces.

esponses to railway accidents very often enter into what and therefore the railways, that are seen as a public good, stand
could be seen as the slippery domain of the counterfac- on private land that once belonged to peasants. The land near
tual. Not surprisingly, the counterfactual necessarily railway tracks is public land unlike let us say, military land.
involves the blame game. Thus, in the context of the recent rail- The former is thus easily accessible to people who use it either
way tragedy near Amritsar on 19 October that claimed 60 lives, for “human” habitation or cultural celebrations. In many towns
such a blame game was quite prominently indulged in by some and semi-urban towns, local people have treated the use of this
interested parties. There were a number of assumptions and land as a matter of customary right for Dussehra celebrations.
statements about what could have been done to avert the tragedy. As has been the case, people in India seem to have treated the
These ranged from asserting that if the motorman had slowed occupation (regular or temporary) of land near the railway
down or the railway police had been more vigilant or conversely, tracks as a matter of customary right. Regularly, in terms of
if the Dussehra celebration enthusiasts had avoided climbing on residences near the track, and temporary, in terms of using the
to the railway tracks, the tragedy could have been avoided. The land for celebration of cultural events or religious festivals. Com-
blame game reached an absurd level when there were obser- pared to military establishments in India, the railways adminis-
vations that if the people assembled at the celebrations had tration has been quite flexible, if not generous, in making con-
refrained from taking “selfies” on the track, the deaths would not cessions to those who occupy the land.
have occurred. It was also pointed out that if persons belonging Let us take the case of commuters in Mumbai who are gripped
to a particular political party had not gone to the site to attend with anxiety to reach their workplaces on time. Their anxiety
the celebrations, the circumstances would have been different. forces them to underestimate the speed of the train when cross-
The counterfactual provides the ground for some people to fix ing the railway tracks. Media reports suggest that in Mumbai
responsibility on others while at the same time escaping from any alone nearly 20,000 people were killed and an equal number
responsibility themselves. This blame game that is played in the name were fatally injured in the last four years. On the other side of the
of responsibility is, of course, not without political motivation. spectrum, the railway coaches on the tracks also carry the middle
The question, however, that has to be raised is: What in pub- class whose attitudes towards those who reside by the side of these
lic perception is the significance of railway tracks on land and tracks are often morally offensive. These commuters who other-
especially the land in the close vicinity of these tracks? Why do wise suffer from hardships in the local trains treat the slums at the
people either permanently or occasionally, begin to occupy the side of the tracks as everyday sources of disgust and repulsion.
land near the railway tracks? What are the implications of their However, in the context of the existing tension between the
encounters with the railway tracks? railways and human beings, is it possible to argue that it is not
The material relationship between the railway tracks and the arbitrary choice that people make to transgress the bounda-
the land, particularly in the literary imagination as well as the ries and pile on to the tracks at their own peril? In fact, it is their
postcolonial writings has been perceived to be in a perpetual structural location to the land and the nagging sense of anxiety
state of contradiction. Some renowned literary persons, who produced by the working conditions that leave them no choice
have been influenced by Gandhian thought, view the railway to escape the risk. Similarly, it is not as if the railway engine
track as piercing through the land and thus creating a deep crack leaves the tracks and chases human beings, or runs berserk
in its heart. Whereas scholars riding the postcolonial standpoint, into the residential localities or the mob that gathers near the
expectedly, hold the imperial state responsible for constructing tracks. Tracks run on scientific logic, whereas human reason is
railway lines that cut through the mountains. The railway tracks taken over by the force of anxiety and excitement.

Economic & Political Weekly EPW octoBER 27, 2018 vol lIii no 43 9