The wretched of the local trains

By Maggie Paul

13 June 2016

Post-colonial transportation in Mumbai mirrors Fanon’s theories of colonisation.
Mumbai Central train station Photo : Wikimedia Commons

Mumbai Central train station
Photo : Wikimedia Commons

In current times, violence is palpable and conspicuous in India: violence with religious undertones, caste animosities, struggles over sexual orientation, territorial disputes. But while some forms of violence are highlighted and acknowledged, others pass largely unnoticed in the routines of daily life.

The local suburban trains in Mumbai – which form the geographical and metaphorical backbone of the city – carry over four million passengers every day on the Central Railway lines, and around 3.6 million on the Western lines. An estimated 4,700 people, on average, travel in a nine-car carriage during peak hours, whereas the ideal capacity is just 1700 – claiming the dubious merit of having the highest passenger density in the world. Although primarily maintained by Indian Railways, since July 1999 Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation (MVRC) – a public sector undertaking anchored jointly by the central Ministry of Railways and the Government of Maharashtra – has been entrusted with the responsibility of improving the infrastructure of the Mumbai suburban railway network.

When I first arrived in Mumbai, I was drawn to the locals (as the trains are popularly called), as they are a cheap and efficient means of local travel, ideal for students. But as I entered the workforce and began to use the trains for my daily commute during rush hour, more complex, conflicting feelings arose. At the time, as part of my work, I was attending the consultation meetings of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) on the issue of developing a more people-centred development agenda for the city. The MCGM was pushing for a swanky ‘world class’ city vision, which included multi-million rupee sea-links and expressways. It was disturbing to attend these meetings while daily enduring the local trains – being part of that greatly tormented mass that is the Mumbai ‘public’ who count on these trains. Electrocution from overhead lines or falling out of the overflowing trains happened too frequently, although people continued to nonchalantly hang by their fingertips from the doors, or ride on top, dangerously close to the high-voltage electricity lines. The world-class city touted in the meetings I was attending did not promise any respite for this precarious public.

At this time, I was reading Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (first published in 1961), the great thesis on the colonial world in the context of Africa, and his  suggestions of decolonisation, which most analysts understand as being overtly violent. Reading this while being hurled around in the trains, I could identify many of the loose behavioural patterns that Fanon had observed in colonised Algerians on Mumbai’s local trains. I could also find similarities with the power-play within colonisation that he elaborates (highlighting the physical distancing of the colonised and the usurpation of resources by the coloniser) in the efforts to ‘develop’ and ‘plan’ the city of Mumbai. I started to see the postcolonial situation in Mumbai, and especially the institution of public transport, in light of the colonial experience, and I was drawn to explore the similarities between the strategies of the settler colonialists of the past and the present native post-colonial authorities.

Fanon states that closely examining the ‘system of compartments’ between the colonised and coloniser in the colonial world would reveal the intentional ‘lines of forces’ that these separated compartments imply. The more I researched the more I realised that these partitioning “lines of forces”, which mean to characterise the boundaries created by discriminatory practices, are carefully and consciously crafted by specific policy preferences and targeted decisions, and act as tools in the hands of the authorities to maintain a particular social ‘ordering’, as well as to promote a specific geographical layout of the city.

Active creation of lines of forces

Having exposed an intimate tie between the ‘colonialist bourgeoisie’ and the ‘colonised nationalist intellectual’ at the expense of the indistinct mass of the indigenous population, Fanon argues that native leaders being the spoilt children of erstwhile colonialism and today’s national governments, organise the loot of  national resources. They use national distress for personal benefit through scheming and legal robbery. Although this claim is admittedly reductive in nature and also written in a different context, such a stark statement could be of some political value in analysing the trajectory of public transport policies in Mumbai.

In an article on transportation in Mumbai, Bina C. Balakrishnan demonstrates that the split in terms of everyday transportation in Mumbai has always been over 80 percent in favour of mass/public transport. That means that more people are inclined to use public transport than any other means of getting around. Balakrishnan points out that numerous studies since the 1960s, commissioned by the government to recommend improvements in transport systems in Mumbai did not give precedence to this crucial aspect of public transportation usage – the fact that it is so popular. The bulk of such recommendations concentrated on improving road infrastructure, with just passing mention of the need to devise other modes of mass transport to augment the existing local train network. This is despite the fact that the suburban railway accounts for the highest percentage of total transportation in terms of usage and average trip length. The need to improve pedestrian facilities was also completely ignored, and BEST buses – the second major means of public transport – were called an ‘agent of congestion’. The specific recommendations mostly consisted of supply-side solutions that favoured vehicular traffic (mostly personal), such as road widening, construction of new links to connect business districts, flyovers, restriction of pedestrian movement and discouragement of slow moving vehicles on major arterials.

Most transport policies implemented in cities throughout the world – especially in ‘third world’ cities such as Mumbai and Lahore – are modelled on the USA of the 1950s. Such models lead to society as a whole, as well as the environment, bearing the cost of individual mobility. Government financing is focused on facilitating smoother transitions for personal vehicles. Mumbai’s transport policy, particularly since the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1991, has vigorously focused on the enhancement of facilities for private transport, which only benefits around nine per cent of total commuters. Like for instance, in the mid-1990s, the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition in Maharashtra spent around INR 15 billion on building over 55 flyovers in Mumbai. However, it mostly bypasses effective facilities for public transport usage, including the intermediary public transport comprising the remaining 91 per cent of commuters. The pillars of such transport reforms have been flyovers, sea-links and freeways, such as the restricted Eastern Freeway, the toll-based Bandra-Worli sea-link and now the controversial proposed coastal freeway. The skewed public use and doubtful cost-effectiveness of some of these hugely capital-intensive projects have been the subject of extensive academic study. The purported benefits with regards to lessening environmental pollution and easing congestion have been highly contested as well.

‘Target partially achieved’

 The biggest transport project in India in recent times, touted by the World Bank as the largest in scale in Southasia, is the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP). Between 2002 and 2011, the World Bank lent USD 542 million to the Government of Maharashtra (with some component to the MVRC) to enhance the inadequate transport infrastructure of Mumbai. The committee behind the megaproject’s conceptualisation viewed inadequate transport as a bottleneck for economic development. It aimed to ameliorate the situation. But in addition to the project being mired in controversies regarding the rehabilitation and resettlement of people uprooted from their original dwellings in the interests of ‘public purpose’, it has also exacerbated the problems of travel for the relocated. Such people were moved to the outskirts of the city, far from their original dwelling, work and business, thus increasing both the expense and time needed for travel.

Mumbai's CST Railway Station Photo : Wikimedia Commons

Mumbai’s CST Railway Station
Photo : Wikimedia Commons

MUTP’s own evaluation confirms the failure of the project to reduce chronic overcrowding in the trains. The World Bank website states the following with regards to reducing peak-hour train overcrowding:

Target partially achieved (from 4500-5400 passengers in February 2002 to 4016 in June 2011). Despite the increase in train services, the reduction in overcrowding has not been completely achieved due to the increase in number of passengers.

The continued presence of the commercial, financial and official sectors in the southern part of the city, and the marginalisation of people who find their livelihoods in these areas, puts an aggravated pressure on local train facilities.

Even the latest ‘planning’ action undertaken by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) for evolving the Development Plan of Mumbai (2014-34), stresses the “inadequate road density and … several missing road links in the overall road network infrastructure”. It repeatedly highlights a “transit oriented development” strategy, to promote transport-led development around existing and emerging growth centres (characterised by important business hotspots), supposedly in order to “maximize access to public transport, create vibrant community life and reduced automobile dependence”. It remains to be seen how effective the emphasis on providing new connecting link roads for well-off areas would be on reducing the overcrowding on the local trains primarily used by the working class, inhabiting the most unconnected and non-attractive areas. Additionally, scholars and activists have been sceptical about diverting money into huge infrastructural projects for the alternative provision of public transport, such as metros, monorails or the recently proposed bullet trains between business centres, especially in regards to benefits for local train users.

Emile Burn, in ‘What is Marxism?’, states that in societies based on a profit-driven mode of capitalist production, the production and delivery of goods follow profit and not the actual needs of the majority. Therefore, production does not maximise its own potential, and neither does it realise the maximum utilisation of technological innovations for ‘societal’ good. This explains why even though as a technology the railways were introduced almost 45 years earlier than cars, technological/design-based solutions to train overcrowding and capacity are less prominent than updates in the personal vehicle category, such as launches of newer car models. This is despite the fact that the number of people using trains is considerably higher. Within this system, public transport funding is normally considered ‘expenditure’, while road project funding is seen as an ‘investment’.

All around the world, responsible leaders and public transport visionaries are doing away with personal vehicle-centric projects and opting to invest instead in convenient public transit and bike-friendly or pedestrian systems. However, in the city of Mumbai and other Indian cities, this is not being done. Anyone travelling daily by suburban locals knows the importance of diverting all attention to the development of high quality public transportation choices spanning rail, road and even water, to offer an effective alternative to car use. A failure to do so displays an active intent to maintain the lines of force and a status quo wherein some of the most privileged road users remain oblivious to the myriad struggles of the daily local train users. Unlike the erstwhile colonisers though, such divisions are not maintained explicitly but by normalising the violence in the everyday experience of the native worker.

Daily wretchedness

The Wretched of the Earth made me aware that daily life is not really unmediated; that it always bears the mark of those in power. It stressed the importance of exposing the myth of an un-arbitrated life experienced as ‘normal’ or ‘natural’, without being affected by an intervening agency such as a governmental authority. It also stressed that any of the outward behavioural patterns – such as heightened tempers and exaggerated irritability – are not just regular expected individual coping mechanisms but a collective expression of concealed angst about daily dealings with a normalised, unjust system.

Fanon wrote that the white man (and by extension, the native governing class) “dehumanizes the native, or to speak plainly it turns him into an animal”. He was referring to how a white man’s description of native behaviour employed animal analogies, such as a description of the native’s reptilian motions, the stink of the native quarter, the breeding swarms or the foulness of smells – in order to highlight difference and justify the colonial ruling mission. Colonising elites also constructed a picture of the colonised according to their own prejudices and limited understanding.

Daily working class commuters on the local trains are spoken and written of in a similar manner. Personal blogs written by elite natives and expats expound over one-off ordeals travelling and “surviving the local”, which “brings out one’s inner beast”, or comically narrating the whole experience to see the funny side of their caged travel, some comparing it to Bear Grylls’ television series “Man Versus Wild”. Such parody or reflection is not something that a person using the local trains out of necessity has the time, means, vocabulary or inclination to do. The Wikitravel entry for Mumbai warns tourists to avoid standing near the train’s doorway, lest “you will be swamped by a frantic, every man for himself, stampede of men attempting to get on the car” – painting a swarm-like picture. More empathetically, a headline in the mainstream Indian newspaper DNA shouts: ‘When can we travel like humans?’

Fanon explores the effects of colonisation on the everyday behaviour of the colonised. He states that “the colonized man will first manifest the aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people; for the last resort of the native is to defend his personality vis-a-vis his brother”. This comment suggests that the accumulated frustration resulting from normalised injustice is manifested first among the unwitting oppressed themselves, and is relevant to the experiences of the daily riders of the rails. People regularly punch and pinch their way in and out of trains. There is also a flagrant impatience with the slightly ‘slower’ co-traveller who is not able to match the hurried pace of others, and bickering over space happens readily, especially while getting aboard or alighting – almost as a daily affair. Class intolerance is displayed vocally – and sometimes viciously – in both the first class and general compartments.

The next stage in Fanon’s analysis of the colonised arrives wherein a “belief in fatality removes all blame from the oppressor; the cause of misfortunes is attributed to God. In this way the individual acquires a stony calm”. It would not take more than a week of local train travel to sense the ‘stony’ fatality in people’s demeanour. We line up, day in and day out, and pack ourselves onto narrow platforms in order to buzz violently and unconsciously into the train as it arrives. Even relatively empty trains are unnecessarily jostled into, out of habit. There is a general sense of helpless adjustment to the uncomfortable reality.

So, during my overwhelming daily rush hour train travel, the everyday ordeals of working class commuters seem to partially reflect those of the colonised natives within the colonial society that Fanon described. Such unpleasant experiences are often glorified as evidence of the ‘human spirit’, mostly through naive bourgeois accounts that highlight the ‘clubs’ and ‘travel groups’ of  colleagues travelling together and playing games to ease their daily travel burdens. Such glorification partially dilutes the lines of forces of skewed policy choices. The effects of these policy choices – as much as they are passed off as the natural progression of events – are expressly drawn and maintained by the ruling class that accepts and furthers an inequitable model of capitalist organisation of society as the most effective.


To return to Fanon’s emphasis on violence in the ‘everyday’: he wrote that the “colonial world is a world cut into two … The zone where the native lives is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers … The dividing line, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations”. Thus, he writes that the boundaries that the authorities create against the natives are explicitly marked by force and clearly guarded. In the postcolonial ‘free’ world of Mumbai, the line is not too jarring or conspicuous. It is sublime and banal, dotting the city as overcrowded railway lines and dilapidated train stations, separated from smooth freeways. The wretched rider of the overfull trains can only watch from a distance as people zoom by on sparkling paved roads.

~Maggie Paul is a research scholar with the School of Development Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is also a Dalai Lama Fellow recipient (2015-16). Previously she was associated with Hamara Shahar, Hamara Vikas, Hamara Niyojan Abhiyan, Mumbai, anchored by NGO Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) for the campaign for a  People’s Development Plan for Mumbai.

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