Hunger Games: Living and falling out of trains in Mumbai

“Here’s some advice. Stay alive.”

― S. Collins, The Hunger Games



Imagine an upright coffin.


A standard-sized metal casket 7 feet in height, 2 feet across, and less than 2 feet in depth. At exactly 8 am in the morning, try to get inside this coffin. You are not alone. There is a crowd, pushing and shoving, all trying to get inside that coffin along with you. Finally you are in, standing inside this upright coffin, packed with about 14 to 16 strangers. Now imagine four hundred such coffins stacked inside a large box-car or freight-car which can hold only 100 coffins; and the train starts moving at 60 to 80 kilometers per hour. There are ten stops before you reach your destination. The box-car is already overflowing; however, at each stop, hundreds of new coffins try to push and shove their way in, some hanging on by their last nail to the boxcar’s edge.  After 60 to 90 minutes, you arrive at the final destination. Coffins push and shove to get out. Once outside, you shrug the coffin away; deliberately do not say good-bye to the strangers who got real close in the last 60 minutes. You rush to make a presentation to that new client or serve coffee with a smile to your boss. You work all day. At 6 pm, you get inside a similar coffin again; this time with 14 to 16 completely different strangers; and hundreds of such coffins push and shove and get inside a boxcar to return home. After 60 to 90 minutes you get out, shrug the coffin and strangers off, stop at the local bazaar to haggle over the high prices of vegetables with the vendor; then go home and listen to your teenage kid complain about not having a smart-phone. You switch on the idiot-box to tune off from your own life as the drama on television reminds you of what it is to be human. Box-car to idiot-box – you do this every day, six days a week (because your country and company does not believe in 5-day work weeks), for the rest of your working life.


It’s not over. You also have a very high risk of meeting with an accident, including choking and suffocation, falling out of the train, getting pushed, shoved, elbowed by others, or getting run over by a train. And when you survive all this you do not get any points. You do not win. You are supposed to feel lucky that you survived. You take your measly pay-check and go back to living your life which means getting into a coffin every day.


This is neither a video game nor a vampire movie.


This is the daily life of a person in Mumbai, who commutes to work in the city using the urban transportation system – the Mumbai suburban railway system also known as Mumbai locals.

 cover image


The BBC did a series on this aspect of Mumbai and aptly called it Crush Hour (see you-tube link at bottom of this piece). But there is more to Mumbai’s transportation system than pushing and shoving or being packed in a crowded compartment. There are real accidents and deaths:  25,722 passengers fell from suburban trains in Mumbai in the last ten years, of which 6,989 commuters died. Another 22,289 passengers died while crossing the railway tracks. This was revealed by the Government Railway Police (GRP), Mumbai after an inquiry was filed under the Government’s Right to Information (RTI) Act.


In 2015 alone, there were 3200 deaths, of which 697 commuters died after falling from the local trains. That is nearly 9 deaths a day on the Mumbai local system and nearly 2 deaths a day from falling. Many more have serious injuries, lose arms and legs, concussions and get into comatose states.  Additionally, sheer suffocation inside the overcrowded compartment caused deaths by triggering heart attacks and other complications in over 400 commuters.


The Mumbai suburban rail system has nearly 190 to 200 trains (train sets or rakes as they are called by the rail authorities) with 9 to 12 coaches or compartments as they are called in Mumbai. Compartments are classified into 1st class and 2nd class and then into male (gents) and female (ladies). In order to alleviate the problem of over-crowding more 12- and 15-coach trains are being added to the fleet.


However, with Mumbai’s high population, which is growing every day and nearly 4 minute gap between two trains at every station, congestion and over-crowding is inevitable. During peak hours 5000 passengers are packed into a 9-car rake with a rated carrying capacity of 1,700. This has resulted in what is known as Super-Dense Crush Load of 14 to 16 standing passengers per square meter of floor space.

Crus load




The Mumbai Suburban Railway, one of the oldest railway systems in Asia, is an offshoot of the first railway to be built by the British in India. The firstMumbai_suburban_Rail_Network_Indian_railways train is said to have operated on 16 April 1853, between Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in south Mumbai and Thane in the north, a distance of 34 kilometers.


Mumbai’s rail system is divided into two main lines – along its western and eastern or central corridor. Over 5 million commuters use Mumbai’s Central line and 4 million use Western line every day. These suburban rail system trains, or Mumbai locals, are a critical component of the urban transportation system in Mumbai and are known as Mumbai’s lifeline. The city is a commercial capital of India and all commerce and business activity would come to a standstill if these trains stopped. Mumbai is an island city — bounded by the Arabian Sea on the west and south and the bay on the east (it’s name comes from the Portuguese Bom- baía

or good bay). From its historical commercial roots in the south of the island, the city has grown northward where it was easier to build bridges across the creeks and connect with the mainland. Most of the offices and residential house of business owners are in the southern part of the city and most workers live in the north stretching out of the island city into the mainland of India in the state of Maharashtra.



With a population of 20.7 million, according to the Census of 2011, (compared to somewhat over 4 million in 1960), Mumbai Metropolitan Region is one of the most populous urban regions in the world and the second-most populous metropolitan area in India. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region spreads across Mumbai’s adjoining districts of Thane and Raigad and incorporates areas of Thane, Navi Mumbai (New Bombay), Vasai-Virar, Bhiwandi and Panvel where a lot of the office workers live, who travel every day to the city. The average population density surpasses 27,000 people per square kilometer. The city lacks open spaces with less than one acre of open space for every thousand people, while the norm is 4 acres.


Mumbai lives up to its image as a city of extremes. Within India, Mumbai has the highest number of billionaires and millionaires among all cities in India; and has the highest GDP of any city in South, West, or Central Asia. Next to the swanky high-rises are the slums. No city in India has as large a proportion of its residents living in slums, officially put at 54%. The slums have become synonymous with the city and represented with much box-office success in movies such as Slum Dog Millionaire.


It is the lack of affordable housing that is a major problem in Mumbai. It is not that flats are not available; just that housing prices are unrealistically high. A news item in July 2015 on NDTV , an English language News channel in India was titled: ‘Nearly 1 Lakh Flats Unsold in Mumbai. Prices Still Not Falling. Why?’


India’s Property Market Paradox: Unsold Apartments, Crisis for Common Man.’ was the apt title of an article in Huffington Post in March 2015 explained the crisis: “… in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, where residential property prices more than doubled from 2009 to 2012, instead of cheaper housing, most developers built apartments that cost over Indian Rupees 10,000,000 (US$150,000) on average, as these include a hefty margin and are targeted at richer buyers. But the average Indian cannot afford them. Their demand is in a far lower range of INR 5,00,000 (US7500) to INR 20,00,000 (US$30,000). So while apartments remain empty, India’s middle class is faced with a housing crisis or a lack of affordable housing.


The middle-class and low-income workers prefer to buy cheaper flats in the larger Mumbai Metropolitan region and travel for hours in these over-crowded trains. Inflation, at least for food commodities and in housing and transport, has been growing exponentially in recent times. Mumbai was found to be the most expensive city in India according to the recent Cost of Living Survey 2015 conducted by Global HR firm Mercer. Mumbai was ranked at 74th place and was more expensive than Dallas (77), Munich (87), Luxembourg (94), Frankfurt (98) and Vancouver (119). The survey stated that higher cost of fuel, transportation, increased prices of food items, home services and rentals increased the cost of living.


According to a report in the English daily DNA: “Psychiatrists say inflation is leading to depression, loneliness and helplessness among those who are finding it difficult to cope up with their financial condition, making them vulnerable to suicidal tendencies. They say the number of such patients has gone up considerably over the past few years.


While the cost of mobile phones may be decreasing the cost of meat and onions is at an all-time high. People need money to survive and endure hardship. Thus, despite inhuman conditions, the urban transportation system, especially the Mumbai railway system is the lifeline for people and business in this commercial city.






“Winning means fame and fortune. Losing means certain death. The Hunger Games have begun…”

-From The Hunger Games


However, with the rising number of accidental deaths in the last ten years, people question whether Mumbai’s urban commute has become a death-trap? Some activists call it Mumbai’s silent-killer. Although accidents or deaths by railway accident are not silent; they are loud, painful and filled with amputations and screams. It was one such accident on November 27, 2015, that was accidentally filmed by a fellow commuter. It captured how a 21 year old male, standing at the edge of the compartment due to overcrowding fell out after losing his grip on the pole-handle. The video went viral and sparked outrage and anger among commuters. Some f the anger was directed at the rail system for not paying attention to overcrowding. And some of the anger was directed at the in-humanness demonstrated by commuters towards each other. What is it that makes a fellow traveler the enemy of another – what is it that makes a human so insensitive to the plight of another and only think of getting his? When did human beings, the so-called social animals, get completely caught up in this “me-myself-mine” mindset?


However. outrage died down soon as people got busy trying to push and shove their way back to work. That’s the Mumbai spirit. It forgets. Perhaps it cannot afford to remember.


Bhavesh Nakate videos



Man falls from Mumbai local train (this is another one)





Male commuters risk life for ego.


On December 28, 2015, a month after the falling death mentioned above, the Mumbai edition of a widely circulated Indian English daily carried an article with this headline ‘Male commuters risk life for ego.’ It stated that, in 2015, of 7.5 million (75,00,000) commuters, women comprised only 30% and yet suffered only 11% of all deaths; that is of the 3200 deaths in 2015, women accounted for only 325(11%) of the total. Therefore, the article concluded that ‘male commuters risk life for the sake of their ego’ and ‘males are more prone to taking risks while traveling while women opt for safety first.’


Would any sane statistician or social scientist jump to the conclusion that the cause of the larger number of male deaths was the male ego, by just looking at one number. Any student at the 5th grade level would tell us that there could be umpteen other causes and reasons that need to be examined before we jump to causal conclusions. Human problems often have multiple and multi-level causes that have complex inter-relationships. The reasons are simply high demand and not enough trains, greater time gap between two trains leading to overcrowding at stations, environmental, structural, specific problems of the male compartments, group dynamics. In fact these kind of data open up more questions than they answer. These basic frequency comparisons are a starting point for more detailed investigation. To blame the male ego is naïve, immature, and an obvious attempt at shifting the blame to the victim.


The reporter of the article had gone to a psychiatrist to get a quote, not an urban transport planner but a psychiatrist, who explained away the findings by saying: “Men suffer more casualties because they sacrifice safety measures for the sake of their ego.” All the other sources contacted by the journalist seemed to be of one type — eager to blame the male ego. The message was that if the male ego was brought under control then all accidental deaths on Mumbai trains would stop.



Most people always thought that the transport authorities, policy makers, politicians or the nexus between politicians and various developers, and lobby groups were responsible for the mess that is Mumbai. What used to be a beautiful city along the sea with hills and the largest natural forest reserve of all urban areas globally has now been reduced to an ugly, congested, dying, smelly sprawl with dust, poor quality air, poor visibility, and noise that assault the human senses. Mercer’s Quality of Living Rankings which cover 230 prevalent destinations for globally mobile talent and to determine expatriate worker’s remuneration places Mumbai at 152nd rank. They cite the extensive increase in population due to migration from other parts of India, lack of access to clean water, air pollution and traffic congestion as reasons for Mumbai’s low ranking.


The headline was indeed confusing. Who is the victim of all the deaths and accidents in the Mumbai rail system? Is it the male traveler with the huge ego, who regularly falls off from trains or the city, the government agency that operates this overcrowded, hellish transport system?


Do we laugh or cry at such headlines? Is this simple insensitivity or sheer stupidity?




“Hope. Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.”

President Snow in The Hunger Games


“Why so angry?” quipped an acquaintance who is trying to make money through an e-commerce start-up? “Look at the bright side. Traffic congestion and overcrowded trains are a business opportunity, not a crisis. The more people push and shove and fall out of trains, and the more such newspaper articles are published about accidents and deaths on public transportation and roads, the more people get afraid and the more likely they are to stay at home. And the more they stay at home the more they shop online. E-commerce will boom in India,” he said, “mark my words.” That’s the same belief held by venture capitalists, who have been blindly bank-rolling loss making e-commerce sites all this while.  However, someone’s death or discomfort was not an opportunity to make money. He expressed surprise at these antiquated thoughts. However, despite the obvious discomfort experienced during the entire conversation, it was informative to talk to him because he did point out an event which gave a different angle to this whole problem. He reminded us of a riot in a railway station on the Mumbai suburban railway system that took place in 2015. And he mentioned that it was not a one-off incident; these kinds of disturbances and riots at railway stations and bus stops were frequent, especially with any disruption of services. This was a complex issue and we were reminded to look at all sides of the phenomenon.




Examination of newspaper reports found that from 8 am to 12 noon on Friday, January 2, 2015, a technical glitch, caused by a broken pantograph, disrupted Mumbai’s local train service on its central line. At a station called Diva, irate passengers protested by blocking the train line. The commuters at Diva station started assembling on the tracks in huge numbers and some threw stones at any passing trains. The passengers said they were angry at frequent breakdowns of service in the Mumbai rail system. However, the protest soon turned violent, escalating into a full-blown riot. Ten trains were damaged, more than 100 services were suspended and four police vehicles were destroyed. The government railway police (GRP) registered cases against 12,000 people for rioting and damaging government and railway property, after railway agency sustained losses of India Rupees 1.8 million because of protests by commuters.


Interestingly, a report on this incident in one of the major newspapers ended the article with this sentence: ‘Passengers cheered loudly when the first train from CST rolled into Thane station, at 1.45 pm.


This changed the question. At first we asked why are there so many deaths on the urban transport system in Mumbai? And how can one callously blame the male ego for the deaths instead of examining structural factors? What is wrong with the authorities and the media that shifts the blame on to the victim?


However, now, the question was different: Why do the very people who are at risk of dying every time they get into a crowded train engage in rioting when they cannot get into these overcrowded box-cars? If the daily commute is difficult and deadly, then why do people riot when the train service breaks down? Wouldn’t a normal person be happy that they did not have to go to work; but these people were dying to get inside that coffin?


The issue can be re-worded as: I know I am going to have an experience that is torturous, painful and may expose me to potential death. However, if I am denied that experience then I will on a rampage and riot demanding that I be given that painful experience immediately.


How do we understand this phenomenon better? What are the cultural and psychological factors underlying this because it is not an individual engaging in this behavior, it is an entire group of people in the city of Mumbai?


So we thought: Why not take the newspaper stories and our dilemma to the very people who are at risk of falling off the trains? Get responses and feedback from the people themselves. This would complete the journalistic cycle. So we put all the newspaper clippings in a file, placed our question on a printed sheet at the end and took it to the people who use trains.



Diva is a junction Railway Station. It is not on the island of Mumbai. Diva is across the creek about 17 kilometers east of Thane, situated on the mainland of the state of Maharashtra. Another 14 kilometers east of Diva, further inland, is the station of Kalyan. As mentioned before many of the office workers of Mumbai have affordable flats on the mainland and travel every day into the city. Diva is an important junction because it has a line that connects to the western railway system and therefore commuters from the east and central lines can change over at Diva to travel to the western line. Diva station has a long history. It was opened in 1877 and is a major junction in the central railway system of Mumbai. The Parsik tunnel, built in 1916 during the British Rule, ends at Diva Railway Station.




 “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor.”

― S. Collins, The Hunger Games


Newspaper clippings in hand we reached Diva station at 9 am. We purchased tickets so that we could get on the platform where people board the trains. We approached a few people, but they were in a hurry to reach their place of work and did not even look at us. However, after getting pushed and shoved around, we met one person, who perhaps took pity on us. We showed him the clippings and explained why we had come to that station. This person zoomed in to the male ego headline. Tell that psychiatrist to travel with us for a day and he will know how the male ego prompts us to fall or jump out of trains. It is not the ego, it is our desperation that makes us ignore our own safety and take risks. We go to work every day so we can put food on our tables, keep our families alive, pay the doctor’s bills, the children’s school tuition, then it is good to have a male ego. What do these rich spoilt people understand of our lives anyway? Ask the psychiatrist to stop taking his fees from patients and we will keep our egos aside and pay more attention to our own safety. His voice had reached a higher pitch.




By this time a couple more men who overheard us had become interested and they gathered around our file with the clippings. One of them was in a generous mood, and even let his train go without trying to push and shove his way in.


Both seemed to have honed in on the ‘male ego’ headline. One of them gave a dramatic performance as he responded by asking a series of questions: Is climate change caused by male ego? Of course, mostly the ego of industrialists and businessmen who are unwilling to acknowledge the truth. Is ISIS and terrorism caused by the male ego? Of course, the ego of the ISIS leaders, the American military, owners of the oil companies, the Saudis, the Syrians, the Iraqis. All of those male egos. Any problem in the world can be blamed on the male ego.


Another said: What about the ego of our company owners? Is it their ego that they have maintained offices in South Mumbai when 90 percent of the staff are from North Mumbai? Why can’t they move their office here so we do not have to travel as much? And if they want us to be safe, then why don’t they do something about the prices of flats in Mumbai? The other one said: Well, then it must be the ego of these real estate developers that they have kept process of housing so high even though 100,000 flats remain unsold?


They were being sarcastic and started laughing loudly. Hearing this a young man piped in: I would also like to travel in a helicopter from my rooftop like one Indian billionaire does, but then it was my father’s ego that prevented him from engaging in corruption and cozying up with politicians to launder their bribe money to create a business empire.


One man, who was reading a novel, pointed to the male ego article and said: This has to be a paid article. Haven’t you heard about paid articles? All this nonsense about the male ego being the cause of falls from trains – this is definitely paid for by the railway authorities or other vested interests that do not want to change the overcrowded transport system.


This provided a slight shift in their thought process and gave us a small window to show them the clippings of the riot in Diva and ask: Why?


The answer was unanimous. Almost all of them repeated the same story. They talked about their daily struggle for survival. If they miss out even one day of work, their boss or owner cuts their pay or takes the work back in some form or other. They constantly worry about losing their job to one of the many young people graduating from college or a student with a management degree from a college in some remote part of India, who is willing to work at lower pay. If they do not go to work, they are afraid they will not bring home a salary, default on their home loan payments, not afford the over-priced food and vegetables, family will go hungry, not afford to pay for children’s education in a good school, or be unable to take care of any medical expenses. All of them said they were under extreme stress. They know they cannot miss a day. They need the money. Therefore, they push their way into the train, and try to push every other person out of the way. They are single mindedly focused on their paychecks.


Sensing that the mood had become serious, the two young men joked: Oh! So now they are blaming the male ego. In the past, any problem in Mumbai used to be blamed on migrant workers by the local political parties. Another said that blaming migrants for taking away jobs is very easy. If there is a job to be done, and even a small amount of money is given, someone somewhere is desperate to take it. Why blame the person who takes the job? Why not blame the employer who does not want to give a living wage and raise the salaries. I am sure if the wage is decent, even the locals will work.


Another agreed and said: It is just that the rich want to take all the money and don’t want to pay for anything that will benefit their workers. And now even the government does not want to spend on giving some facilities to the people. We all pay taxes, everything we buy, we pay taxes. Where does all that tax money disappear? What is it used for?


A person who had been quiet till now said: They want our labor and then they want our money when we buy food and things, but they have no respect for us. The problem is that money can flow in out of any country but man cannot. Look at all those bankers. They have created a recession but no one went to jail. No one blamed their ego for destroying the economy. But if one person falls from a train or if we express our anger at the transportation system, you are quick to blame us.


The final word came from someone who we met on our way back. We were having tea at a stall outside another railway station. We were discussing the conversations we had earlier that day when this man overheard us. He used to travel every day in Mumbai locals, and then one day decided that enough was enough. Not because of the super-crush load or the crowd, but specifically because of the inhumanness it generated in himself. He told us that he became a monster when it was time to board or alight from a train. He did not like what he felt inside every morning and evening. He became this other person who would easily push someone else out of the way just to get a foothold on the train. “This is not what I wanted for myself,” he said, “I live in a city. We are supposed to be civilized. Savages have better manners than me in a Mumbai local.”




He continued, “People advised me to relocate to a smaller town. I did not want to leave Mumbai. This is my city. I was born here; I like it here. I am a big city boy. Fortunately, I was able to shift to a place of work that is near my residence.”


Now he walks to work every day and does what he can at a personal level to keep Mumbai human; however, he also feels powerless that he is unable to do anything on a large scale that can improve his city. He feels he will psychologically die the day he abandons Mumbai and escapes to a place with better air and better quality of life; and feels that day is near. When we show him the headlines and the data, some of which was already familiar to him, he took us back into history, specifically World War 2: “I think it has been mentioned by some historians that without the mass transportation of the railways, the freight cars and cattle cars in which millions victims were transported to the ghastly concentration camps, it would not have been possible for the Nazis to reach the unfortunately large scale of the Holocaust and kill more than 5 million.”


But how does that historical tragedy relate to what is going on in Mumbai today? We asked.


Similarly Mumbai’s commercial success within India would not have been possible without this local rail system that transports workers on a massive scale in the millions on a daily basis. And who has massively benefited from Mumbai’s so called commercial success? The workers may have had a few benefits; they are happy with a small matchbox like flat or a smart-phone and by comparing themselves to their poor cousins in the village. In reality, Mumbai’s money has largely gone to the coffers of the business owners, the politicians, real-estate moguls and so on. They have a nexus with their own self-interest at heart. They could care less if twenty thousand people fell of the trains tomorrow.”



Seeing the quizzical look on our faces, he answered the question on our minds as he continued.


“How can I compare the experience of Holocaust victims to Mumbai? Well, it’s my opinion and you may choose not to publish it. Because you think that these people in Mumbai are free, aren’t they, and those in concentration camps weren’t? The real tragedy for those living in Mumbai is that at least the victim in the concentration camp knew that his aggressor was external. The victim of the Holocaust could see the aggressor. If the victim tried to run, there was a uniformed soldier or SS agent who would have shot him dead. The victims of the Holocaust were pushed and shoved into freight cars with the barrels of the guns of German soldiers. Ask yourself, what is it that makes the people of Mumbai push and shove each other to get into one of those box-cars which have super-crush loads and then watch their own brother fall of the trains and do nothing?”


“But the man in Mumbai is free, right? Who or what forces this life on them? Yet, why do they choose to be inhuman every day when they travel, or live inhuman lives in pigeon-coop flats and cubicle offices? No one is putting a gun to his head. There is no soldier or SS agent who will shoot him if he walks away and chooses an alternative. But the beaten-down inhuman living in degraded cities like Mumbai will never run. He feels he has no exit. He thinks he has no choice when it comes to his lifestyle. There is no alternative. This is the only life. The man from Mumbai will breathe the polluted air, drink unclean water, walk through congested streets and get pushed around in local trains, but he will make no such choice in his own life. He will accept whatever is given to them. He just wants to pay those EMIs and buy that new smartphone.  He will put those headphones and tune everything else out. What is it that makes him want to do this every day for his entire life?”


Is it complete lack of ego? Perhaps the man in Mumbai should develop and nurture an ego – some sense of self-respect so that they stop accepting such living conditions. It is not the male ego that is making them fall off trains. It is the complete lack of ego that is making them get into that super-congested compartment in the first place. If these males had any ego they would be attacking the powers that have allowed this to happen — a world where money has more respect than a human being.


Ask the psychiatrist to ANALYZE THIS.




© The Essayist, 2015




Photographs of Mumbai trains by Rajesh Subramanian.

For some of the other pictures and diagrams, the URL from where it has been procured is pasted at the bottom.



  • Crush hour – The World’s Busiest Railway 2015: Episode 1 Preview:
  •  Mumbai Local Trains:
  •  The video below shows people inside the train:
  •  Women Boarding Crowded Mumbai Local Train Compilation India 2014:




Riots in Diva


Videos of riots in Diva

Mumbai train services hit: Violent protests by angry commuters (Headlines Today):

Diva Station Riot Jan 2015:



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.