All Aboard! By William Bowles

1 July 2007

Even though I hate to admit it, the BBC occasionally shows us something of worth, not that it was made by the BBC, it merely flighted it, and you would have needed a satellite dish or a Freeview box to have seen it.

Now whether it was the programme maker’s intention or not matters little, but the fact remains that the two-parter’s exploration, ‘Monsoon Railway’ (BBC4) was both fascinating and extremely informative and for one reason, because it is a picture of how industrialism only really works when it is a truly collective enterprise. And when I say works, I don’t mean this in any kind of utilitarian manner.

A couple of facts: The Indian Railway is the single biggest civil employer of people on the planet and the then newly-appointed minister of Transport’s first act was to rescind a decision to replace the locally made pottery cups that everyone traveling on the railway uses, with plastic ones, because the switch resulted in 100,000 potters being made redundant.

Every day 11 million people in India take a train ride; one station alone has one million passengers a day passing through it.

One town, Kolgagar in the north of India in Bengal State, is the railway town with everyone of its 100,000 inhabitants directly connected to the Railway.

So ingrained is the Railway in Indian culture (it’s been around over 150 years) that it has its own god and railway stations have temples and shrines attached for worship therein.

And it’s about the only thing the British left behind that’s worth something.

Now the Indian Railway is a state-owned enterprise, for example, its fares are structured so that the better off subsidise the fares of the poor. And once a Railway employee, a person is setup for life, yet unlike the traditional view in the West of how nationalised industries operate (or don’t), it is clear that Indian Railway workers are fiercely proud of their network.

Now I contend that this is a good example of socialist culture in action. It may not be the most ‘efficient’ enterprise on the planet, it’s bureaucratic beyond belief, the entire network–the biggest in Asia–runs on paper, lots of paper, vast tomes get exchanged between guards when they switch shifts but so what?

The issue here is that the Indian Railway is not only intrinsic to Indian culture but also indispensable, socially as well as economically. It’s not merely an enterprise, for grouped around it are literally millions of people who are not directly employed by the Railway but who service the passengers as well as the railway’s needs.

Now compared to us in the so-called developed world, India is a poor country and there is definitely abject poverty abounding but at the same time there is also something else happening here that emerges through how Railway employees relate to people and events around them.

Every Indian railway station has a group of permanent residents, the street kids, orphans and runaways who not only hustle the crowds but also sleep in the stations. Abused, beaten and even murdered, to assist these kids Railway workers have setup over 100 charities in one city alone, reasoning that as employees of the Railway they are privileged people who ought to share their good fortune.

One Railway worker remarked that seeing these children every day of his life he simply could not ignore their condition, it brought tears to his eyes. No doubt bad karma would ensue elsewise.

So what’s going here? I thought the collective stifled individual initiative, made everyone the same? Well not in India. No doubt if some Western ‘consultant’ was to get his hands on the thing, heads would roll, lines would be axed, all in the name of ‘efficiency’ but the fact is that ‘efficiency’ is not the yardstick for measuring the Railway’s ‘output’.

Instead, the picture we get is of an enterprise that functions precisely because its employees are fiercely proud of the Railway and the essential role it plays in Indian life. It’s a lesson we need to relearn and it highlights why the attack on the communal in the West has been so vicious and so relentless, we must not be allowed to remember what it used to be like because believe or not, a generation back, workers in comparable industries in the UK held similar attitudes.

De-industrialising the UK did more than make hundreds of thousands redundant, it destroyed an entire culture, hundreds of communities and the networks of relationships that made them what they were.

Socialism may be dead (for now) but the idea certainly is not, it lives and breathes in India and a lot of other places beside. It may not be perfect but what is? Socialist ideas when realised, unlike their capitalist counterparts, have to be 100% perfect or they are judged as ‘failures’, but then what else is new?

The Indian Railway may well be ‘inefficient’ (by capitalist standards) but like all social enterprises, it serves a larger need than the purely economic. It not only unites India and its peoples’, it is also an expression of an ethos for which there is no capitalist equivalent, nor can there ever be one.

And yes, to our jaded eyes it does appear ‘quaint’ and ‘old-fashioned’ but then it moves at a human pace for it’s the workers of the Indian Railway who come across as the real movers.

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