There are several books on the history of Indian Railways, and they are of two kinds—either academic, heavy-reads, or coffee table books with glossy pictures, peppered with some text. The book is easy to read, quick to finish and to the point, as the present generation wants; yet, it sums up the entire history of the Railways up to independence. But, let me point out, compiling an easy-to-read book is one of the most difficult tasks which has been well accomplished.
A Niti Aayog member, Dr Debroy has been the chairman of the high-powered committee to restructure Indian Railways. (Many of the committee’s recommendations are being implemented, the main one being the discontinuation of a separate Budget.) As the committee’s work progressed, the members were curious about Indian Railways’ evolution and accumulated an inventory of facts and trivia about it. The book is probably an outcome of this knowledge.
Indian Railways: The Weaving of a National Tapestry starts with an introduction by business writer Gurcharan Das, who mentions that the East India Railway Company was one of the first to get going and that the Great Indian Peninsula Railway “constructed a second line” for 35 miles from Bombay to Kalyan. The fact is that though the East India Railway Company was the first one to be formed, the Bombay line was the first official line to open, as the inauguration of the East India Railway got delayed because the ship carrying its locomotives and wagons sank. The main book, however, has no such errors.
This book is divided into five chapters, from 1830s to the 20th century, and rightly mentions that the first railway in India started in the 1830s at a small place near Madras. The flow of the book is chronological, beginning with the inception of the first lines in the country and the stray ideas before that period, supported with old maps, photographs and archival news reports, though there is a small mix-up between 1853 and 1953 on pages 4 and 5.
While the book has liberally used information from the Indian Railway Fans Club Association’s webpages and several reference books, it also presents a good amount of original data and research from the railway archives and unseen documents. The outstanding part of the research material is the discovery of correspondence between ‘P’ and ‘C’, sometime in 1857, from the railway archives, on the issue of railways versus irrigation. Neither ‘P’ nor ‘C’ revealed who they were; all that we know is that ‘P’ was in favour of the railways and ‘C’ argued against them. An interesting quote from ‘C’s letter, pronouncing railways a failure reads: “The Railway cannot supersede the road in everything; not only so but if it cannot convey everything much cheaper than could be done by the road it must be pronounced a failure.”
Interestingly, the book does not just talk about history and statistics, but gives an interesting account and stories from the past, including the entire gripping case history of the 1921 GIP Railway Murder Case and about crime on trains, with a historical perspective, presenting a table of secret lingo of the professional thief. It also goes on to tell you the story of the railway police and the police commission.
Another asset of the book is that it has a comprehensive list of the narrow and metre-gauge rail lines, with photographs. The book details the history and perspective of how the railways’ finances were separated, leading to an independent Railway Budget in the 1920s, until it ended this year. Dr Debroy corrects the media’s conclusion that there will be no Railway Budget. “Every organisation has a budget and so will the Indian Railways. What will be different is that a railway minister will no longer present this Budget in Parliament through a speech. The separate presentation will not be required legally and constitutionally,” he explains.
Further, a comprehensive table of evolution of policies and committees on the Railways between 1850s and 1947 shows how railway tracks have changed since inception and how they were when India became independent. The book ends at 15 August 1947.
This book is not a feast but a brunch and will be liked by everyone.
(The author is a journalist, author and railway historian with a passion for the history of Indian Railways)