Bhopal’s Habibganj Railway Station: A test case for democracy

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K K Sethi

Habibganj in Bhopal is going to have a world class railway station. The activity (to upgrade the railway station) started about three years ago.

The first inkling Bhopal residents had about the world class railway station was when the parking charges for cars at the Habibganj station were raised abruptly without notice from Rs. 10 per entry to Rs. 50 per entry. At that point of time, the only visible activity was creation of certain barriers. Naturally there was a protest from the public and the issue was raised through the media. This compelled the private builder and the contractor entrusted with the responsibility of making the world class station to reduce the minimum parking fees to Rs. 20 per entry.

The next step towards building the world class station was dismantling of the escalator to go from platform one to other platforms. As a result, the passengers had no option but to use the stairs. These, in turn received the attention of the contractor and they were dismantled to be replaced by stairs made of iron.

Simultaneously the platforms were dug up in preparation for the world class platforms. These can still be seen all dug up even after three years. Recently, Since August (2019), the stairs have been closed and replaced by a subway at the Itarsi-end of the platform. One has to walk to the far end of the platform to use it. The subway itself is rather too long – about 300 or 400 metres. At the other end, again one has to walk up this subway and if by chance the railway compartment is at the opposite end of the platform, i.e.towards bhopal, one has to walk all the way crossing the dug up platforms, trying to avoid the broken tiles and worse.

A passenger can, probably, put up with these inconveniences if at the end of the tunnel, there is light. But in the present instance, the light at the end of the tunnel is a railway train speeding towards you.

For a long while, so many construction related activities have been going on. Lose electricity wires were hanging or lying haphazardly all around. There were deep pits but fortunately these have been barricaded. At last, after three years, the contractor has condescended to exhibit a model of the world class station. Lo and behold, the only prominent feature one comes across while looking at this model is a sixteen storey building. Rest is all covered up and only the roofs are visible and one is not aware of what facilities await the ‘happy traveller’ at this world class station. Question arises, what do we need the sixteen storey building for? The obvious answer is that bhopal will have a grand five star hotel right where the passengers would be alighting from the train. How many of them would be using this facility is best known to the contractor or those who have awarded the contract. One thing is certain – this is going to be a big profit venture.

Now if we were living in a democracy, a real democracy, not the sham we are having for the last 67 years (since the people gave themselves the Constitution), the citizens would have been taken into confidence about what lies ahead. They would have been told about the advantages of the world class station. They would have had some idea of the time it would take to have these facilities in place. What will be cost of the structures and what will be the liabilities of the general public or the railway users. As it is there may be an extra platform or two to accommodate more trains but right now there is no indication of that. Space is after all, limited for expansion except for the main building in front. The experience of the so-called world class airports means big space for all types of shops. And the path for the movement of passengers at such a facility is laid in such a way that all have to walk a good distance to reach the gates meant for boarding. It is quite likely that the world class station at Habibganj also will have the same set of rules – a great many shops through which you will have to walk.

Perhaps, like the airports, the reporting time at the world class station will be two hours before the departure of trains so that the passengers will have to wait and perforce do some shopping. At least the children may like to have snacks, and the adults a cup of tea. It is also the general experience that a packet of potato chips that costs Rs. 30 outside is available for Rs. 100 inside the airport. A cup of tea or coffee also costs a lot at the airports. The world class station will, most probably, have the same price slab.

The correct way would have been to list all the advantages and the negative points. After widely advertising these, there could have been a call for suggestions from the public. There should have been an exercise to find out whether or not the people were willing to undergo the sufferings of the transition period and bear the high cost of the luxury of a world class station.

While taking up such projects, a committee of experts should be formed and given full information about the project, its reason de etre and various other nuances. They could then inform the public about it. Of course the contractor, (or the intending contractor) would have full rights to present views.

In order to find the opinion of the citizens, a general poll can be held but more profitable and worthy exercise could be to have a representative group of citizens chosen at random from among various sections – the rich, the higher middle class, the lower middle class, and the weaker class – in the same proportion as their population. This group can hear arguments, approve or disapprove the project or suggest modifications and safeguards. If it is necessary, there could be a number of such groups in the city and the suburbs where the users of the railway system reside.

That would be real democracy where the will of the informed citizens will be carried out rather than the whims of an officer or group of officers. In the present scenario, it appears, they are only looking at the handsome contribution of the contractor both initially as well as annually to justify this exercise of creation of a world class railway station.

Maybe it is too late to undo the damage but not too late to assure the citizens of the perils and mitigate as much suffering as possible. After all, the public just wants a comfortable train journey rather than the facilities at the station that are incidental and not material. The passenger would need only clean platforms, reasonable facilities like escalators, lifts, boards indicating position of compartments, reservation charts, properly audible announcement system and a trolley car for the aged and the infirm to ensure they comfortably reach their compartments.

One last point. such convening of committees of informed citizens chosen at random to represent all sections of the populace is necessary not only for this particular project but for all projects in which welfare of the public is involved. Public consent should also be taken before fixing taxes for the services they may desire. That indeed would be real and representative democracy.

KK Sethi, the author, is a retired IAS officer. He has held several important posts and was Chief Secretary Manipur and President Board of Revenue, Government of Madhya Pradesh. As Commissioner for Linguistic Minorities, he had presented to the President of India, the forty-fourth Annual Report under Article 350- B (2) of the Constitution. For the implementation of the constitutional provisions and Nationally Agreed Scheme of Safeguards provided to linguistic minorities, the report recommends action to be taken by the Central Government and various State Governments / Union Territory Administration, to assuage the feelings of the linguistic minorities.

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