Don't breathe

By Ronny Sen

For millions, traveling inside unreserved general compartments in Indian trains is an inescapable Indian experience. A rapidly escalating inflation has resulted in severe hikes in fuel prices in India, compelling an increasing number of people to travel in unreserved general compartments of the Indian Railways.
People traveling for long distances in these compartments have to face unbearable conditions. There are provisions for only 72 people to sit. There is no provision for sleeping. At times, more than 500 people are forced to travel on these carriages. The infrastructure on these compartments has seen no change since the British Era, unlike the other compartments like 3 Tier AC, 2 Tier AC, Sleeper and 1st Class AC. At night, the sleeping passengers resemble heaps of dead bodies in a war-zone.
My work till date has concentrated on Eastern India. I plan to document train journeys on unreserved compartments across the country. New economic polices of the Government have left the Railways as the sole affordable public segment in the transport sector. The railways have started facing an unprecedented pressure after recent repeated fuel price hikes. Recently, the railway minister has been forced to resign following massive public protests. An already existing problem will be exacerbated. This project mirrors the apathy that India has historically had for the dispossessed.
I started traveling in these compartments when I used to return home from my College which was 12 hours away by train, as I could not afford to buy a reserved ticket. I ended up frequenting these compartments twice or thrice a month. Having been a part of this space for more than 4 years now, I have documented this experience and photographed the journey with my fellow travellers.
I plan to do a nationwide traveling exhibition in trains with poster prints of my work inside the air-conditioned and other reserved compartments of Indian Railways so that people can see the space in which other poeple travel inside the unreserved general compartments. I would like to take this project in the bigger cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata where I will rent spaces to put up these prints. I will also try to engage with public spaces so that it will be visible to a larger audience including the policy makers.
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Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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