gujarat diaries

As rail station in Modi’s hometown gets a makeover, a resident asks: ‘How many jobs will it create?’

The station, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi used to sell chai as a child, is in the midst of a Rs 8-crore development upgrade.

Gujarat’s Vadnagar station is getting the mother of all makeovers.

Its solitary rail track – a 57-km long metre-gauge line connecting the town of Mehsana to the Jain temple at Taranga – has been ripped out. It is being replaced by a broad-gauge line and extended till Abu Road in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan.

Paint and plaster have been hammered off the tiny asbestos-roofed building housing the station’s ticketing office and station master’s room. It is being redone as a part of a Rs 8 crore project to redevelop the station as a heritage station, said Hardik Bhand, who runs the ticketing office at the station.

Look to the left and the station’s solitary platform blurs into a construction site. One group of men carries iron rods bent into rectangular brackets past the yellow board at the edge of the platform announcing the station’s name. Another set inserts these rods into the steel scaffoldings of what will become concrete pillars. Behind them, an earthmover moves soil around. The whole station is seeing an upgrade. From one platform to three. From one train trip a day – which stops at Vadnagar while heading to Taranga and again while heading back – to three a day.

It is a real overhaul. At one time, with its single platform and no more than two train halts a day, this station in North Gujarat must have been quite sleepy. And pretty too – herons roost on the trees behind the station.

Modi tea stall

It is not easy to locate the reason for this exuberance of redevelopment. Around here somewhere is the tea stall where Prime Minister Narendra Modi used to sell chai as a child. But ask around and you get contradictory answers. Some pointed towards a two metre by two metre structure on the platform facing the ticket window. Others, like an old man sitting with auto rickshaw drivers under a tree just outside the train station, pointed at a barber shop in the line of stalls just outside the station. “That is where the tea stall used to be,” he said.

Similar confusion surrounds the station itself. It is getting a heritage tag. So how old is it? A worker at the station made a bold statement before backtracking. “I am told train service started here in 1850 but I am not sure,” he said. This is just as well. The first passenger train in India ran between Bombay and Thane in 1853.

Town gets an upgrade

Like its station, Vadnagar town is also getting a makeover. Its lake is getting spruced up. Local archaeological digs have yielded some Buddhist statues and development plans are afoot there as well. The town’s residents have mixed views about all this.

Vadnagar is a small town. The 2011 Census pegged its population at 27,790. Belying its small size, the town has an Industrial Training Institute, what the station official described as a “dus maale ka medical college (a 10-storeyed medical college)”, a science college and a Navodaya Vidyalaya.

What it does not have, however, is jobs. A lot of young men travel down to Mehsana each day for employment.

As a young man at the station, who did not want to be identified, said: “Lakh kharch karne ke baad 8,000 ka kaam karte hain.” People spend lakhs on their education but then get a job which pays them a few thousands. He questioned the beautification. It is being done for tourism purposes, he said. “But how many jobs will that create?” he asked.

Instead, the exercise is taking a toll on the town’s residents. “Train services have stopped for six months now,” he said. This is hurting those from Vadnagar who used to take the train to get to Mehsana or Taranga for their livelihoods.

The young man was a BJP supporter. His views were pro-Vallabhbhai Patel and anti-Jawaharlal Nehru – the latter, he said, had pushed India towards Partition given his impatience to become prime minister. According to him, Gandhi, being fonder of Nehru than Patel, had played along. He could not understand why people opposed the hanging of Yakub Menon. But challenge any of those points and he was open to discussion and conceded points he found valid.

At the same time, he was far angrier about the time being spent debating history but not on pressing everyday questions like employment and small businesses shuttering all around.

This shows in Vadnagar. It is a town like most small towns in the country. A myriad government hoardings promise – and exhort – change. But, all around, as though mocking those promises, lie a thick scatter of uncollected garbage and micro-enterprises set up by those who could not find better employment.

All of this has left the young man disillusioned with the BJP. “I voted for them but after three years, there really is not much to show,” he said.

All photographs by M Rajshekhar.

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