'The railway strike made things worse'
The strike by Mumbai's railway motormen may have been called off, but while it lasted it shook the city's office-going public to the core, so dependent is the city on its lifeline. Presenting a range of reactions from commuters affected by the strike.
Vijay S is hungry, but knows he can't allow himself to eat again until tomorrow morning.
"I didn't work yesterday. So I can't eat today," he says, resignation and his exhaustion clear in his face. "I have to save money to bring home to my family."
He scuffs the floor at Bandra station with his dusty chappals, and glances time and again at the cheap plastic watch on his left wrist, which is perilously close to slipping off, so thin and frail are his arms.
"It's too crowded inside, even when the trains do come," he says, sighing. "I've been here for over two hours." He never had to contend with crowds like this in his village in Bihar. Only 24 years old, he moved here just six months ago, after marriage and the birth of his first child -- a daughter.
"You may make a few more rupees in Mumbai, but you live like an animal. When I first saw the trains here, I couldn't believe my eyes. Now, this strike has made things much worse. When the next train comes, I'll have to fight my way inside. But it's already past 1 pm, which means I'll only get a half-day's wages. And I must reach Borivali by 4 pm or I could lose my employment!"
Image: Commuters wait for a train at Dadar station in Mumbai
'Imagine all the business going down the drain across the whole of Mumbai!'
Vijay's is just one of millions of similar stories across the city. Mumbai, the economic powerhouse of India, nay, South Asia, has been brought to its knees, thanks to a hunger strike called on Monday by motormen of the city's local trains.
Now he sits between two others stranded by the strike, all three of them hanging their heads. The electronic sign overhead, usually flashing with destinations and arrival times, is blank. A voice blares through the overhead speakers, informing commuters that the city has arranged for extra BEST buses to carry those left in the lurch.
In Mahim, for Pervez, a financial services professional, the whole situation is unacceptable. "It's very frustrating. If there's a disagreement between the government and its employees, why must we all suffer? I've not been able to conduct my business for two days now. Twice I've had to cancel meetings with clients. All of Monday I sat in traffic, and didn't finish any work. And I'm just one person. Imagine all the business going down the drain across the whole of Mumbai!"
No more than ten metres away, inside the Mahim station booking office, officials sit around a tray of biscuits, sipping milky chai.
"Sorry. We don't have permission to answer questions," they respond to inquiries. "Go to Churchgate station if you want to know about the strike."
Image: The railway stir meant a greater crush at Mumbai's railway stations
'Tonight my family will enjoy an early dinner'
Things are much the same at nearby Dadar station.
One official, speaking anonymously, says, "We have no idea when the trains are coming. I don't think there's a true plan in place, except to provide a few fast trains."
25-year-old Santosh, neck craned to catch first sight of any approaching trains, has his cheap Nokia phone glued to his ear, trying to get through to his boss.
For two consecutive days, the strike has prevented him from delivering some crucial documents from Dadar to Borivali. He works as a page for a Dadar-based construction company, but his job requires him to travel up and down the city every day via the local trains. Without them, the time it takes to complete his work is tripled.
"I go from Virar to Churchgate, and everywhere in between. Do you think my boss has patience for my excuses? No. If a train doesn't come in the next 20 minutes, I'll be forced to take a taxi or rickshaw to Borivali. And I'll have to pay for it from my own pocket. And I'll be late."
Next to him stands Natur, a 48-year-old bank employee from Gujarat who's shifted to Mumbai for work. He's a determined optimist, and says there's no point getting upset over something as silly as a strike.
"The government does what it likes," he points out. "What can the common man do? Nothing. It's not in our hands. Yesterday I rushed around like a crazy person, trying to reach Nariman Point. But not today. I've just picked up some beautiful vegetables, and now I'm going home. I've already informed my office that I'm taking a holiday. So, instead of getting all upset, tonight my family will enjoy an early dinner, with all our favourite dishes. It's a good thing!"
Image: A woman cranes her neck, hoping to see a train in Mumbai
'A Borivali fast train is coming. Get ready! Come!'
RK Gupta, a taxi-man based in and around Dadar, agrees with Natur. "What's the point of worrying? I took a holiday yesterday," he says, before adding with a grin, "and slept very well."
When told that others of his profession were charging double and triple rates for rides through the traffic-choked city last night, he laughs. "Let them. I didn't want to sit in all that traffic. It's not worth it."
Back at Bandra station, a tremor moves around the crowd of crouched, sweaty commuters: "A Borivali fast train is coming. Get ready! Come!"
And then it appears, a local train, glittering in the afternooon sun. It's packed to the brim and chugging along slower than usual, and though it's not yet 2 pm, the compartments are crowded like they would be at peak hours.
Vijay bids a quick farewell, clutches the plastic bag containing his documents close to his chest, and charges into the fray of arms and limbs. Amidst of flurry of shouts, groans and grunts, dozens upon dozens of passengers simultaneously stream in and out of the second-class compartment. Vijay pushes hard, and is thrown back. Pushes hard again, and is again thrown back.
Finally, as the train starts to disembark, he manages to get a single foot inside while grabbing hold of a sliver of metal handrail. With great effort, he pulls himself upward and, as the train picks up speed, disappears inside. There's no one there to applaud him for his effort, to congratulate him for his steadfastness. Because here, in Mumbai, it's just business as usual.
Image: Vijay and others disappear into the Borivali fast train