Millennium Post

On the rubbles of antiquity

Around the World in Eighty Days, yes Jules Verne’s  popular classic. Here is an interesting trivia: the story of this adventure novel was inspired by the establishment of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway.

That time when India was an English colony, and a richly endowed region, but rather too scattered. The city of Manchester is historically known for its textile industry. The raw material was cotton, not their native crop. So it was India they had to turn to. But India had a problem. Cotton grew in the interiors India, far from the coasts.

The indigenous means of transport like bullock-carts were not efficient enough to transport cotton from the interiors to the coast to be shipped off for industrial use in Britain. This necessity compelled the sahibs to bring India closer together.  Thus began the story of railways in the subcontinent.

Rajendra B Alekar chronicles the emergence of railways in this book, and in doing so he presents a detailed study of a history still found in fragments. Drawing from journals, biographies, newspapers and railway archives, this research also captures the economic and social revolutions spurred by the country’s first train line while depicting the growth of India’s business capital. This book is a rare study of a nation.

The first Indian train ran in 1853. This line was built from Bori Bunder in the southern tip of the vertical island of Bombay, stretching 34 km northwards, trundling along the eastern shore, the open fields, hillocks, swamps and tunnels, and into the town of Thana. Beyond the mainland of Kaliyan (Callian back then), the line bifurcated, ascending the 2,000 ft high Sahyadri mountain ranges, and fanning out into the subcontinent. This was a most difficult section to build, the Lonavla-Khandala and Kasara Ghats (Bhor and Thal). This was built by James John Berkley. He was a very revered man acknowledged for his distinguished professional career as well as the kindness and consideration with which he conducted his official duties. His headstone in Camberwell Old Cemetery in London is testimony to this.

The first rail line began as an experimental one that primarily ferried goods to and from the port of Bombay. Later, that line was used for strategic military purposes aside from passenger transport. To Alekar, tracing the original blueprint of the lines was like looking for hidden treasure. And 150 years later, it is worthwhile to look for relics along India’s first railway line to explore and arrive at the network’s precise history. Going back 150 years, we find something that is incredibly relevant in times today. It is about not being wasteful. Railway infrastructure changes in a jiffy.

What we see today becomes history tomorrow. But the abundance of resources in India was no reason to pillage nature. The retired tracks and metals were reused as lamp posts and fencing material. Recycling was an attitude then, not a last resort. Railways are among the many blessings that the English left us with.

This is a small lesson that also comes with it. As the railways grew rapidly and employed large numbers on cheap Indian labour, there is a story that states that one day in the 1850’s during the construction of the line, there was a sudden strike by workers due to misperception regarding their wages.  They were walking away as no one had assured them of payment. They turned around once the engineer guaranteed them the wages. The relationship between local labourers, contractors, and British engineers remained strained.

Conditions were compounded when the line reached the difficult Bhor Ghat terrain near Khandala in the late 1850’s. Such was the situation that compelled the enactment of a full-fledged labour law in 1860 – the Employers and Workman (Disputes) Act – that gave magistrates the power to settle disputes. This law also allowed the British to keep a police force on call to handle difficult situations. This was, however, only a beginning of territorial and socio-economic encroachment.

The swamp between the two islands of Parel-Matoonga-Dharavi and Salsette was a big challenge to confront. This swamp was filled up and the line was constructed along the model of the Liverpool-Manchester Railway, the world’s first twin-tracker inter-urban passenger railway. Some railway contractors let the historicity along the lines intact. Some unwittingly destroyed the relics of bygone era, for instance, the Lahore-Multan line used bricks from the ancient Harappan city as track ballast.

This book takes us along facts, wonders, and numerous anecdotes that have taken the Indian Railways to where it is today.
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