Indian Railonomics

If you live in Mumbai, you go a long way back with railways, and so did I. My first experience of travelling alone in a Mumbai local was in the 7th grade when my dad asked me to go 25 kilometres to just collect a document and come back. As mighty scared as I was, it was also an opportunity for me to get rid of this unique nervousness to travel alone in a crowded train. I was counting every station as it passed to make sure I did not miss mine.

Little did I know that trains would become an eternal part of my college life. Catching the same coach in the same train for three years straight. And now I need not count the station, I just had to look outside to see where I was. Trains truly are the lifeline of my city.

Now that I am in Pune, I still prefer trains as the mode of transport to reach home. It is not too different, it is a longer journey. Here at my Institute, I had the chance of interacting with Bibek Debroy, a permanent member of the NITI Aayog, and in-charge of the Railways. He has suggested removing the budget and given new ideas to revamp the Railways. My question to him was simple, as to what he would seem fit to replace something as huge as the Railway Budget. Though my question was answered last in the session, it was also answered the longest. A good fifteen minute answer followed by, “is this explanation sufficient or you want more?” I was delighted at the detail of his answer and the passion he showed during answering touching the most minute intricacy.

My last train ride from Mumbai to Pune was enriching from my ‘Economics’ point of view. My window seat was facing the side opposite the direction that the train was moving, the Railways’ way of showing me Memento.  Railways sure is a large employer in the country. For example, my train had three people going up and down the train selling food and water employed by the IRCTC. The motormen, or the people handling the two engines upward from Karjat to Lonavala, and all the ticket collectors and other staff at every Railway station between CST and Pune, that is a huge number. Multiply this by the stretches of tracks that cover the farthest corners of the country, turns out to be lakhs of people!

I am not going to concentrate on these lakhs employed by the Railways. I’m going to talk about the others who are not really allowed to sell in the trains but still do. My four hour train journey saw about eight different goods being sold in my coach. From different flavoured golis that costed Rs, 2 per packet to a room freshener set of 3 that costed Rs. 50 to a battery powered 3 LED light that coud be adjusted in 4 brightness modes which costed Rs. 150. And a few other thing s from water to chips to earings that sold in between them. And everything sold in decent numbers! These people that sell from train to train are a shadow entrepreneurial force making their living from only one thing, the Indian Railways. Think about the thousands of such people who must be selling from station to station and train to train throughout the country and that is their job! And here you cannot be too late, or you’d miss the train!

The photo above was the newest thing on the block. A new toy that could be twisted and turned into alphabets and numbers and even a ball! Even that guy sold 3-4 of them in my coach alone for 30 bucks each! A special mention for the Karjat Vada Pav business, run by a Divadkar and a Jain, employing hundreds of people to stand on the platform and wait for a train and sell Vada Pav through the bogey windows. So much so, that you’d not miss the Vada Pav if your window faces the tracks, because they stand on the tracks too! The entire business lives on trains and nothing else!

This, in my opinion, is an amazing thing that the Railways has given birth to! In itself, this shadow business force must be a multi-million rupees industry every year, and not even 10% of it would be accounted for. This makes Indian Railway, an entire sub-economy in the country, having a humungous number of small players fighting for their share! This would be probably the largest form of unorganized retail in the country! It is beautiful enough to pay attention on the size of this phenomenon and how safely these entrepreneurs get away without paying for tickets, the tax angle is again a huge one.

So the lifeline of the country is also a lifeline for many people living off what they sell in the trains. Only if I could calculate and reach a number, see how much actually the Railway is contributing to the GDP!


One comment

  1. I have travelled on same route at least 30 time. I have experienced all fun of travelling. Also remember how that guy advertised his game, “A B C D game ale…. 1 2 3 game aley…”.
    Really good written article and make me to remember all journeys. Relating this sector to economy is really a nice thought. Making policies and provisions for these sectors in railway budget is also important challenge.


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