After his return from South Africa in July 1914, Mahatma Gandhi travelled the length and breadth of India.
The mode was the third class on Indian Railways. The aim was to have a one-to-one connect with the masses.
His experiences were penned in the book “Third Class in Indian Railways” written in Ranchi on September 25, 1917. Travelling from Lahore to Tranquebar and from Karachi to Calcutta in over two years, Gandhiji critically observed third class travel.
Despite Gandhiji’s pointing out defects to rail companies, he felt, only a crusade by the public/press could redress certain grievances.
“On the 12th instant, I booked at Bombay for Madras by the mail train and paid Rs. 13-9. It was labelled to carry 22 passengers. These could only have seating accommodation.”
“There were two nights to be passed in this train before reaching Madras. If not more than 22 passengers found their way into my carriage before we reached Poona, it was because the bolder ones kept the others at bay.”
“With the exception of two or three, all had to find their sleep being seated all the time. After reaching Raichur the pressure became unbearable.”
“The rush of passengers could not be stayed. The guards or other railway servants came in only to push in more passengers,” the Mahatma wrote.
Protests by a Memon merchant against this “packing of passengers like sardines” were in vain. It was his fifth night in the train. He was insulted and referred to the management at the terminus, said Gandhiji.
Thirty-five passengers travelled in a carriage meant for 22 with some lying on the floor and some others travelled standing. A free fight for space was averted by an intervention from older passengers.
Dirty Compartments and Filthy Food
Gandhiji wrote that the compartment was not swept/cleaned during the journey. Passengers waded through dirt. The closet inside the compartment was not cleaned and there was no water in the tank.
Tea at stations was “tannin water with filthy sugar and a whitish looking liquid miscalled milk which gave this water a muddy appearance” according to Gandhiji.
Everything about the refreshments were dirty – dirty looking, handed by dirtier hands, kept in dirty vessels, sampled by millions of flies and weighed in equally unattractive scales- he penned. Though passengers badmouthed the quality of food, they had no choice.
The return journey was no better. The carriage was packed and Gandhiji could get in thanks to his friend. There were 12 people constantly populating them compartment meant for nine passengers.
At one place an important railway servant swore at and threatened a protestant while locking the door over the passengers whom he had squeezed in with difficulty.
The European closet was unusable; there was a pipe but no water. Dirt was lying thick upon the woodwork, Gandhiji penned.
His co-passengers were three stalwart Punjabi Mahomedans, two refined Tamilians and two Mahomedan merchants, he wrote.
One of them had to bribe Rs 5 for his ticket and seat. These three men were bound for Ludhiana and had still more nights of travel in store for them.
Gandhiji observed that the dirty ambience at stations was normal. He had experienced the same at all stations he got down – Raichur, Dhond, Sonepur, Chakradharpur, Purulia and Asansol.
The waiting rooms were nosy and dirty. So were the floors, people, sat, spat and smoked wherever they liked. This was despite smoking being prohibited by law.
Disinfectants were unknown and the third class passenger being dumb and helpless never complained. Many even observed a fast during train travel to lessen their ordeal.
According to Gandhiji, at the Imperial Capital “a certain third class booking-office is a Black-Hole fit only to be destroyed.” He was appalled that the plague had become widespread in India as a result.
First Class vs Third Class
Gandhiji observed that the first-class fare from Bombay to Madras was over five times the third-class fare. However, the third class passenger did not receive even one-tenth the comfort of the privileged first-class passenger.
The neglect of third-class passengers resulted in a lost opportunity of inculcating the habits of orderliness, cleanliness, sanitation, clean tastes, and decent composite life in them. Instead, these passengers had their sense of decency and cleanliness blunted, Gandhiji wrote.
Finally, he suggested that third-class travel would definitely improve if people in high places experienced third class without prior intimation just to get a feel of the common man’s suffering. This would give the uncomplaining millions some return for the fares they paid to travel in the expectation of being transported with ordinary creature comforts.