On a very hot day, five elderly tourists died on the southbound Kerala Express, reportedly of heatwave conditions. During the same period, on the northbound MP Sampark Kranti Express, I was paying Rs50 for a litre of bottled water at Jabalpur and then on the train too. The stoppages en route were too short and the taps on the platform dry.
But I get ahead of my report.
What do the railway stations at Mangaluru, Jhansi, Hazarat Nizamuddin, Yesvantpur, Jabalpur, Lok Manya Tilak Terminal, MGR Chennai Central. KSR Bengaluru, Ludhiana, Sangrur, Haridwar, Varanasi and Anand Vihar Terminal have in common?
For one, I have been there in the last few years. For another, each one of these railway stations has a VIP lounge, which is actually the upper class lounge quietly converted and being used for the VIPs. The upper class passengers move one level down, being witness to the new India, wherein VIPs get the services that paying passengers are entitled to.
At this new-fangled VIP lounge, everything comes free for the VIPs and their lackeys. Including drinking water, mineral water actually, served in clean crockery. Can I prove that this is free? No, I cannot, because technically these VIP lounges do not exist, and their expense heads are unknown.
So when I wanted to write about this subject (I have written about the subject of VIP culture in India often enough in the past few decades), the editor told me, OK, you can write one more, but please provide verified evidence. Fair enough.
Mangaluru junction is a busy railway station, with three busy sections meeting at this town, one each from the east, south and north. To the west, of course, is the sea. It is also a very clean railway station, with a large number of patient people present, as people from coastal areas are wont to be, even though the single narrow pedestrian bridge available is a disaster waiting to happen.
I have been to Mangaluru by air, sea, rail and road. The tanker terminal there has one of the prettiest beaches in India that I have ever seen, mainly because security is extremely strict there, because strategic oil reserves move through Mangaluru. The airport is not so big. Therefore, there are a lot of people who move in and out by rail.
And it does not have an upper class or AC class waiting room. Everybody happily uses the one large waiting hall. On its side is a locked door, which says VIP Lounge, and since too many VIPs don't appear to visit Mangaluru junction, it tends to remain locked, as the helpful attendant told me.
Who uses it then, I asked the attendant, and she told me, "Oh it is Sa'ar and his friends, sometimes they will also use it for sleeping at night because it is air conditioned, no?"
So I decided to find out more about the VIP lounge at Mangaluru Junction, vide the public grievances (PG) portal and the Right to Information Act.
PG - MORLY/E/2019/07076 dated 15 of May 2019 - "There is no separate upper class waiting room at Mangaluru junction. As per local queries, the upper class waiting room has been designated as the VIP lounge and is kept locked. Kindly resolve my grievance."
P Dhananjayan, senior divisional commercial manager (DCM) of Palghat division replied to me - "We are in receipt of the grievance. The feasibility, certainly, will be looked into, and necessary arrangements made accordingly."
So I filed another PG afresh vide MORLY/E/2019/07190 dated 17 May 2019 - "Please see previous public grievance filed and response therein. The response is not acceptable nor does it provide resolution of the said grievance. Kindly resolve the grievance instead of giving evasive answers by Palghat Sr DCM."
This time the same person provided me with a considered response - "There are separate waiting rooms for male and female passengers. The suggestion for an upper class waiting room will be looked into."
Still not satisfied, I filed yet another PG vide MORLY/E/2019/07396 dated 22 May 2019 - "My specific grievance now being repeated for the third time is that an upper class waiting room exists at MAJN but is kept locked as RESERVED VIP LOUNGE for unknown entities. This grievance should be resolved by opening the RESERVED LOUNGE VIP ROOM for upper class passengers as is required in a democracy. Kindly resolve my grievance."
The response I got from Saibaba, additional divisional railway manager, Palghat division, was brilliant - "The order of precedence of the Republic of India is being followed in allowing VIPs in the VIP lounge. Upper class waiting room is under consideration."
This order of precedence is specifically a protocol list. It specifically mentions that it has nothing to do with day-to-day functions of the government. So I responded "Order of precedence has nothing to do with operational aspects of government of India."
Still not willing to give up, I filed MORLY/E/2019/07585 on 26 May 2019 - "Please see previous public grievance in this context appended below. Every time you appear to give a different innovative reason, wrongly, and this continues. The order of precedence as quoted by you is not applicable for the day-to-day functioning of the government of India. Quoted from the ministry of home affairs (MHA) order in this context – ‘The order in this table of precedence is meant for state and ceremonial occasions and has no application in the day-to-day business of government. I am shocked that your office is quoting the order of precedence in violation of all laws of India. Kindly resolve my grievance and do away with the VIP LOUNGE at MAJN at the earliest and provide me with an action taken report. Humbly submitted, please also refer to the speech of the prime minister on national telecast yesterday in this context’."
Now I received a response from Saibaba Ji, additional divisional railway manager, southern railway at Palghat, stating that "The proposal will be looked into."
To which I responded with - "This is not a proposal, this is a grievance, please do not insult citizens with such responses."
Energised by the prime minister's post-election speech emphasizing a No More VIP Culture, I filed a fresh grievance - "Please see appended grievance. A response that the proposal will be looked into is not correct. I am not making a proposal, I am lodging a formal grievance, kindly resolve my grievance, and provide an action taken report, instead of a different response every time."
To which I got a response. It said "The grievance will be looked into", signed by my now good friend, Saibaba.
So what does this have to do with five Indians dying of thirst in the Kerala Express?
To be continued in Part 2.