The Indian Railway Crossing
India, © 14.Apr.2004 gM
Photos of India
Introduction to India
India - how exciting! What was it like? What are the people like there?
Breaking Point
The Indian Railway Crossing
A Perfect Day
A Hippo in India
Get there in a car, with a cycle-rickshaw, or on a bus. It does not matter how, as long as you get there. Drive a luxury 4WD SUV or steer an oxcart. Ride a bicycle or take an autorickshaw. Walk! Anything will do as long as you get yourself to an Indian railway crossing just after the gates have closed.1) Make sure you are in the third vehicle from the gate. Then, lean back and watch the scenes unfold. The next car will maybe stop behind you. More likely, it will pull up your left side, pass you, and park right in front of the gate. Another vehicle will follow. As close to the gate as possible, autorickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians fill out the spaces between the larger vehicles. A minibus inches forward to your right on the shoulder of the road. It comes to a halt next to the first car, cutting into its path. The same is happening on the other side of the railway tracks. By the end, a road with one lane for each direction of travel holds traffic for six lanes. If you think this is chaos, wait until the gates open. To the uninitiated, the rules for resolving this traffic jam are an incomprehensible mystery. Are there any? Somehow it all works out, accompanied by much honking, hand waving, light flashing, and shouting. Is this more efficient than one long queue? Certainly not, as it definitely takes longer for all vehicles to cross the railway tracks. Some individuals, however, manage to overtake others. It does not matter that it takes them longer to cross the railway tracks compared to one long queue. Absolute time is irrelevant. Gaining a relative advantage over other drivers is crucially important, i.e. being able to leave the railway crossing earlier than these other drivers, and further ahead of the position at which one arrived at the railway crossing.

To me, this is more than just a railway crossing: it shows the dynamics of Indian society. More than a billion people live in India with not nearly enough resources to share. Waiting at the end of a queue means someone else will go right up front and probably get what you want or need earlier, or simply get it instead of you. One has to be pushy and opportunistic with little regard for right and wrong - and who is to say what is right and wrong? There needs to be choice for right and wrong to exist. For most people in India, having to fight for survival in the worst case or for some comfort in the best case is reality each and every day. The more educated may know about different ways but are almost powerless in terms of implementing change. To try as an individual means to risk losing out and falling behind since there is always someone else waiting to take one's spot. Sometimes, this difference to the Western world in how to deal with everyday things can be quite entertaining. On the plane from Austria to India, I am in line for the bathroom. There are a couple of passengers ahead of me when an eight-year old Indian boy walks up to the door of the bathroom. I look at the face of the first in line, a middle-aged, Caucasian man. He clearly does not agree with the boy's action, but is considering that the kid may need to use the bathroom urgently. His facial expressions, however, also show doubt as to how urgent this emergency is. He is still trying to assess the situation when the bathroom door opens. His attempt to talk to the boy does not get very far since the boy ignores him and walks into the bathroom.

Of course, the above examples capture only a small aspect of the dynamics of Indian society. It is not that simple. A sociey of individuals trying to get the most for themselves at all times is anarchy. India is not in anarchy. Something balances the volatile impact of a billion people on too little space. I think the greater importance of family, family ties, and traditions compared to those of Western society brings an order and predictability to the seemingly chaotic. Though vital to India, these balancing factors are ironically also a curse, as change occurs much more slowly in a larger collective than in individuals. Eight years ago, I visited India for the first time. The changes which have occurred since then consist largely of a layer of technology on the surface of Indian society: computerization, cell phones, Internet, ATMs. Underneath, traditions, poverty, and an exploding population growth still define life and death. Compared to eight years ago, I perceive India in a very different way today. Faces of wisdom now show the hardship of an exhausting life. The brilliant colors of everyday India are now covered by dirt. Receiving preferential treatment because of what I represent, I have to admit, did feel flattering eight years ago. Today, it feels just wrong. The peaceful, inward-directed, self-enlightening way of life is now tarnished by continuing violent disputes with neighboring countries and nuclear threat. What would Mahatma Gandhi say about the harmony between India's religious groups today? My fascination with something foreign to my own cultural upbringing, my fascination with a different way of life, has given way to sadness. Of all the countries I have seen, India seems the least likely to flourish in the next twenty years. Not because it is not trying to do the right things, but because the task is so insurmountable. Despite its entrepreneurship, despite its technological advances, despite thousands of years of cultural heritage, despite its resilience, I am very sceptical that India will manage to control its population growth. If it does not, the future seems very bleak. If it does, and I sincerely hope it will, it will be an incredible success, nothing short of a miracle. And, such an accomplishment will be even more commendable compared to other countries with a population size similar to India because India is addressing its problems as a true democracy. Such a success will have to be called a triumph for all of humanity.

1) It happened to us on the road from Ludhiana to Chandigarh.

Introduction to India  /  India - how exciting! What was it like? What are the people like there?  /  Breaking Point  /  The Indian Railway Crossing  /  A Perfect Day  /  A Hippo in India