The Greater Vishakapatnam Municipality has with extreme pride named this city, The City of Destiny. They brandish the slogan around with immense pride but I can’t help but think – “Oh Hell, is this our destiny? Is this it?” The city is a highly polluted industrial town totally lacking in infrastructure and any concept of urban planning has been abandoned. Top amongst our contributors to the unchecked pollution are Hindustan Petroleum oil refinery and zinc smelter, Essar Oil, the Port TRust, the HIndustan Shipyard, the Coromandel’s Liquid Sulphur Terminal and Vizag Steel. The simple fact of modernity is that there just have to be towns that provide the raw materials for the rest of the country. But sadly none of the millions are that made from these industries go back in to the town’s infrastructure. Just what is the municipality doing with the earnings from playing host to these large industries? Clearly, the roads, air, water and drainage are at the receiving end of this neglect. But a couple of days ago I found that the city’s main entry and exit portal – the railway station is in a pitiful state. It’s about 15 years behind the times. This station is the largest earner in the whole of Andhra Pradesh.
I haven’t taken a long distance (overnight) train journey for over 12 years. When I studied in Delhi I’d travel back home on a very slow 46 hour train because it went straight home to Katpadi, Vellore where my dad could pick me up. The faster 24hr trains went to Chennai, a 120km drive away and no motorway in those days. I think the most recent train journey I made was from Kerala to Katpatdi (Vellore) in 2008 when a friend from the UK came to visit. But more recently I have been to pick people up from Katpadi Railway Station in Vellore which is super clean, has potted plants and even has an electronic ticket printing and train enquiry machine on the platform. There’s even an automatic platform ticket dispenser. So I think I just assumed that larger stations must be even better off.
The end of my mother in law’s 3 day visit found us at the Vishakapatnam railway station where she was to board a train back to Katpadi, Vellore. Most people would take a flight but she likes long train journeys so was happy to take the journey. And Vellore is still 120kms from Chennai where the flights land. The train was 3 hours late because a goods train had derailed. But this delay gave us ample time to debate the decay and decline in Indian civic sense and infrastructure of which the railway station we were at was a living example.
As you enter the station you are greeted by a plastic dustbin that has overspilled its banks. And there’s no one to clean it up. Near by is a colossal LED screen displaying overweight gyrating Telegu film stars. I’d prefer a dustbin and a full time cleaner. Classic example of the misdirection of funds. The Indian system is all about show without substance. At night the station is lit up like a Roman amphitheatre with an Indian twist: green, red, purple, orange and blue pillars are illuminated along the facade of the building. It is truly bizarre.
You then pass through an overheated tunnel that while lets light in, creates a greenhouse effect, trapping the heat of the sunlight. You are then on Platform 1 which is filthy. There are paper cups, garbage and not a cleaning person in sight. And don’t get me started on the packs of hefty Indian dogs patrolling the platforms. These are not scrawny starving mongrels. These guys are a canine mafia. We were considering that our next journey home to Vellore with our dog Abroozi would be by train but after seeing the packs of wild dogs on the platform, whose territory we’d have to negotiate, I’m having second thoughts.
We made our way to platform 3 up very steep treacherous concrete steps, with no ramp. The concrete steps are so old, there are big bits gouged out which one can easily slip into and twist an ankle or loose a suitcase wheel. There are iron strips on each step, to provide an edge to the step but these iron strips have come loose in the middle while still being fastened at the ends. The gaping strips make perfect traps for the open slipper and misplaced foot.
Platform 3 boasts this sign, covered in grime, dust and soot. For a culture with “God” ever present in our practices, we sure aren’t very keen on the cleanliness.
And what we witnessed on the tracks was a shocking reminder of an India 15 or 20 years ago. Or is this what are railway stations have become? Now that air travel is more affordable to the middle classes, the trains are at the mercy of the fragile civic sense of the lower classes. Not to say that any class of Indians are cleaner – you should see some of the small town airports. One thing that has improved is people’s luggage. The strolleys are everywhere, leaving the coolies/porters begging for work. We came to the conclusion that coupled with a decrepit sense of civil obedience, we have no one and no respect for people who are supposed to enforce this civil obedience.
Vizag is a key water filling station for the trains – the toilets, the pantry car. But there is a rather odd, unmodern, antiquated system of plastic pipes dangling from a water pipe that runs the length of the tracks. A man armed with a spanner, without any uniform to say that he is an authorised railway employee, loosens the nuts and bolts to let the water out. The pipes are plugged in to the appropriate orifices in the train. But as our Indian people are bursting with ingenuity, they alight from the train, on to the tracks, to have a refreshing shower from these plastic pipes. One man got right down to his underwear, the other held on to his red lungi. They brought they’re own towels, hanging from the water pipe.
The tracks are covered in food, human shit and garbage. Perhaps the waste baskets in the town are overflowing so people just chuck it on the tracks.
Lets not forget the open sewage drains running the length of the tracks. The orangey yellow and dark brown almost back stuff at the bottom of the picture is indeed human shit.
Only one of your senses is being activated looking at these pictures. We suffered the smell. Next month I’m taking a train from Bangalore to Coimbatore so hopefully I’ll be able to report a much better experience from Southern Railways.
For now I can only throw my hands up in despair at the lack of basic standards in the City of Destiny.
For a look at what a good railway station is like, check out my piece on Katpadi Railway Station Vellore.