Why hundreds of people stood on the railway tracks on the fateful day of 19 October has been the most repeated question in the wake of the Amritsar train accident that claimed at least 60 lives.
For residents of Joda Kheda, who live minutes away from the accident site, the tracks have become a way of life. The honking of the trains that make their way past the town and the constant chugging of the wheels have blended seamlessly with the daily cacophony of their lives.
Railway Tracks A Happy Spot?
For 19-year-old Saurabh, who is a fruit seller, the tracks are where he hangs out with friends. "I cannot afford going to the discos and bars like rich people. So we hang out here, every Sunday," he says stoically.
While Saurabh calls a friend who picks up the alcohol, another buys bidis. Soon four friends, armed with supplies for the night, make themselves comfortable on the tracks. "We drink whiskey and rum, smoke, play cards; sometimes we play Punjabi music too. No one says anything, well, at least, till now they had not. We get back home in the wee hours of the morning," Saurabh tells The Quint.
Joda Kheda is also home to a large number of migrant workers from UP and Bihar, besides Punjabis and Sikhs. For these men, time spent at the tracks is a welcome refuge from reality.
"Patti khelte hain (We play cards)," says 28-year-old Vishal, another fruit seller, adding, "We sit there all day, 10-15 of us. Sunday is a day off from work, so my friends know we have to meet at the tracks." In light of this incident, however, Vishal says they won't be able to do that anymore. "There will be much more security there, they will not let us play in peace," he said.
When asked if he isn't worried about encountering trains, he says "We have no idea when it comes and goes, but we are accustomed to the signals and sirens."
The Easy Route Taken
Shivani, a 23-year-old woman who stitches clothes to help her parents make some money, said, "I regularly cross the railway tracks to get vegetables from the other side. Who will walk the entire route?"
Several other women in the locality offer the same words. They prefer crossing the tracks to get to the sabzi mandi (vegetable market) across the road quickly.
However, Shivani fumes at the prospect of men idling away on the tracks. "Gambler type mard ghoomte hain vahaan (Men who are like gamblers roam around there) It is infamous for this. They sit there all day and the local policemen also join them in their drinking and smoking," she complains.
Despite the discomfort from their notorious presence, Shivani continues to use the track because it helps her pace up her work. Similarly, for others like Vishal Anand and Kuldeep Singh Raju, taking the tracks is a purely practical choice.
Living A ‘Life on Hold’ Amidst Unfulfilled Promises
“In a day, the gate is open for approximately eight hours and closed for the remaining 16 hours,” Anand said while asking, “Who has time to wait, would you?”
Anand works as a sales executive and often has to travel to different districts in Himachal, Punjab and Haryana for work. He said important places in Amritsar are on the side of the railway tracks. "The railway station and the bus stand are there. Even the 12 gates of Amritsar are on that side," he said. Adding that while he would take thirty minutes to reach the railway station, the tracks could take him there in three minutes – ten times faster.
Kuldeep, who runs a jewellery business, said their lives were perpetually put on hold for lack of better routes.
They said they heard for years that an alternate route will be made but no such effort has come to fruition. “It has been twenty years since we have heard that an alternate route will be made. Currently the only route is the signal which is not feasible for the swelling population of Joda Phatak and the areas around.” Anand said, “First our MLA (Amritsar East) who was Navjot Kaur Sidhu and now it is Navjot Singh Sidhu. Earlier they said they will construct a flyover, but then a little time ago we got to know they will construct a proper underpass.”
When asked about an underpass in the area, and why people don’t prefer using it, Anand said, “You’ve seen the underpass, only two-wheelers can pass through it. What about the cars, trolleys which are persistently stuck in the jam? The route is also not proper. So when it rains the underpass remains blocked for three to four days.”
While the speeding train mowing down 60 people has shaken everyone, for those residing in the vicinity, the tracks offer respite in many ways – speeding up their everyday chores and offering a place to rest at idle hours.
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