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We're off!

Soutik Biswas | 12:06 UK time, Saturday, 25 April 2009

The BBC India Election TrainFinally, we are off. The BBC India election train rumbled out of a quiet station in Delhi, close to the upscale Safdarjung neighbourhood, at exactly three in the afternoon local time. I have to say the seven-coach train is looking really good, branded in red and white. We have begun the 8000km, eight-city, 18-day journey at last.

I am travelling in an air-conditioned coach with a musty, red carpet, and a door handle hanging precariously. An old Incredible India poster hangs near my bunk extolling the virtues of the Buddha. The bunks have fraying red upholstery and there is a little formica-topped storage space. Not bad for a first class coach on Indian Railways.

Our colleagues turned out in full force to see us off and there were instantly-printed framed photographs of us at the station. Members of the Indian media came along too - so let's see how they have to say.


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  • 1. At 1:33pm on 25 Apr 2009, railwaysafrica wrote:

    All the best to you and your team. Please can you provide details pertaining to the train itself with pictures.

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  • 2. At 1:44pm on 25 Apr 2009, Alex Banks wrote:

    Can we have a picture of this train please?

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  • 3. At 2:29pm on 25 Apr 2009, invincibleomkarnathk wrote:

    Cursory and whirl wind tour of India during election does not throw any picture. Only you can see and report poverty stricken Indian voter.The real thing is that 40% of illiterate voter of 714 million eligible Indians thinks and votes under tremendous pressure of so many influences.

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  • 4. At 3:19pm on 25 Apr 2009, ACDundee wrote:

    A 7-coach first class train around India?!!!
    With current headlines in Britain complaining about MPs using taxpayers money for all kinds of superfluous expenses (eg lurid cable TV), can someone at the BBC please explain why British television license fee-payers (who fund the BBC) are funding a journalist to use a 7 coach train for a first class trip around India?!
    The photos I saw elsewhere seem to show that the train has also been painted in BBC colours/logos! Surely his contributions, which don't appear to be of vital interest to the British licence fee-payer, could be acheived in a less expensive/wasteful manner?

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  • 5. At 3:40pm on 25 Apr 2009, Loquatrix wrote:

    Like it or not, ACDundee, the BBC licence fee-payer is paying for a "world service". News does occasionally have the temerity to originate outside our national borders, you know!

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  • 6. At 3:43pm on 25 Apr 2009, andyoliver1971 wrote:

    Can you please provide pictures of the train and have fun! Look forward to the updates

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  • 7. At 4:12pm on 25 Apr 2009, Jody wrote:

    You decorated a train in India with BBC livery? What a great use of public money, considering the difficulties / tough decisions / redundancies other companies are facing in the current economic climate.

    And you spend money on decorating a train.

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  • 8. At 5:05pm on 25 Apr 2009, TiberiusGracchus wrote:

    As a British licence fee payer I'm absolutely delighted to help fund the World Service which I listen to all the time - I get far more value from it than most of the 'national' stations which if they look abroad at all only consider the US. I know the BBC had a similar tour, with a bus, during the US election and it was an interesting way of hearing the views of ordinary voters outside the usual capital city focus. I'm looking forward to following the journey!

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  • 9. At 5:20pm on 25 Apr 2009, MartinDFerry wrote:

    TiberiusGracchus: The point is that the BBC appears profligate with public money in times when there's not much money around. I hope you enjoy the train's shiny new paint job while you're listening to the radio.

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  • 10. At 7:00pm on 25 Apr 2009, d3vmax wrote:

    How come I can see adverts on BBC World when I see it in the US or in India? I thought ads were not allowed on the BBC.
    For e.g. I saw a mini advert: The weather report is bought to you by _________//Insert company name//

    Does anyone have an explanation?

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  • 11. At 7:06pm on 25 Apr 2009, Jordan D wrote:

    It'd be useful for of the a number of the above to remember that BBC World TV is funded by subscribers and isn't funded by the BBC licence fee.

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  • 12. At 7:08pm on 25 Apr 2009, modernRavana wrote:

    As MartinDFerry says what a waste of money and time. What is this talk about the 'biggest Democracy' in the world? How many criminals with cases like Rape.murder pending against them are contesting in this election? Are we spending this money to promote such criminals in the name suopporting 'Demo...crazy'? How many of those in the rural India can read and write to know about these criminals and about the cases pending against them. What more you want to know about the' biggest democracy' than to know about the Prime Minister of India. Is he an elected member of Parliament? In all it is a disgrace for the BBC to promote such fanfare. It is disgusting!

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  • 13. At 7:29pm on 25 Apr 2009, Autumn-in-August wrote:

    No doubt India is the largest democracy. It is not only the British public who pay for the World Service. The advertisements on BBC World Service in India is enough for such good programmes. The British public do pay for BBC but remember BBC functions in other countries just as well. May be the British elections are so boring that the BBC does not air them like they do so with the US and Indian ones. Please remember "Great" Britain is no longer as great as before. India is taking over and it is in the BBC's and "Great" Britain's interest to do programmes such as this one. I am a white British if anyone thinks I am not one.

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  • 14. At 7:32pm on 25 Apr 2009, krisintheus wrote:

    I followed the BBC US election tour last fall and it was a great read. Quick little capsules of each stop, and I ran into them quite by accident when they were here in Dallas. It's not supposed to be in-depth, investigative journalism guys. It's to provide a little insight to us foreigners about what the people are concerned with and how they view their own elections process. It's the sort of thing that doesn't make it into a New York Times (or in your case the Guardian) headline or a CNN sound bite. I'm looking forward to your journey, Mr Biswas.

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  • 15. At 7:58pm on 25 Apr 2009, MartinDFerry wrote:

    Jordan D: So it's OK for the BBC to be profligate with money they get from subscribers in non-UK countries? I'm still not convinced that spending anyone's money repainting a train with the BBC logo for a 2 week trip through India is a good idea. I wonder if the impoverished folk in the Mumbai slums would share your delight at how the BBC spends its cash? Would it have been a bad idea for the BBC to give the money they might have spent on a train paint job to a charity which helps the disadvantaged in India?

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  • 16. At 8:52pm on 25 Apr 2009, MartinDFerry wrote:

    Autumn in August: It's OK to express nationalist sentiment in support of India. You don't have to pretend you're "a white British" when posting. The validity of your opinion isn't influenced by ethnicity or geography.

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  • 17. At 10:10pm on 25 Apr 2009, Jordan D wrote:

    MartinDFerry: I think you're getting confused between being a charity or being a broadcaster. The BBC's remit is the later.

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  • 18. At 10:36pm on 25 Apr 2009, MartinDFerry wrote:

    Jordan D: But being a broadcaster doesn't absolve an organisation of a moral conscience. This exercise is more costly than it need be (special train, paint job, etc): someone at the BBC should have realised that a less ostentatious approach would have been more appropriate in the circumstances. Besides, if you want an authentic vox pop opinion, why hire your own train to stay away from the people?

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  • 19. At 01:01am on 26 Apr 2009, stuarthopper wrote:

    MartinDFerry et al: If you are so concerned about the plight of impovrished people in India, what are you doing about it yourself?

    What is wrong with decorating a train to take the BBC around India? Us license payers are paying for quality coverage - and I believe that is what we are getting!

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  • 20. At 02:39am on 26 Apr 2009, AnishMasinda wrote:

    MartinDFerry, Jody... we in India use trains much, everyone travel by trains, it is not like US,UK.. this is how we get around, thefore it is logical choice for bbc. if 7 carriage is what train is, this isn't 'greener' than convoy of large vehicles? and why not bbc paint train? you haven't been to india?

    if you want cheaper get gap year student to cover the elections!! there are many here!!! but not as good quality.. i thought bbc is pride of uk, the world.... so why spoil? and yes, i agree with stuarthopper, what you do about poverty if so concerned?

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  • 21. At 03:05am on 26 Apr 2009, ozsyav wrote:

    A look at the Indian elections by a neutral agency gives a "relatively" unbiased view of elections be it in India or any other country.The comments from the people who are actually participating in it gives us an insight into current expectation of a voter in India.I am sure the journalists from other media outlets in India will also benefit from this exercise.I support this venture and look forward to the posts by Soutik.

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  • 22. At 10:08am on 26 Apr 2009, MartinDFerry wrote:

    AnishMasinda, StuartHopper: My charitable activities are not relevant but as you ask I make regular monthly contributions to a number of agencies engaged in the alleviation of poverty in South East Asia. Apparently I'm also paying my licence fee so that slum kids playing in open sewers can have a shiny train to admire. I hope they appreciate it.

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  • 23. At 11:21am on 26 Apr 2009, modernRavana wrote:

    Why should anybody help India's poor? They have the money and the means to do that job.Remember last time Gordon Brown visited India and promised £825 million in Aid.And what happens within a month,an indian company comes and buy a British company paying Billions. They have the money to send rockets to the space. They have money to give Rs.200million and more as soft loans,send weapons and army personnel to regimes like Srilanka to kill minority Tamils in the name of fighting 'Terrorism'.They have money to maintain almost 70,000 troops in Kashmir to keep it Indian.They have, I mean the Political parties have billions to spend to 'buy' votes. How do the politicians,poppers just before the elections, become millionaires within no time. So do not ask anybody, what they are doing to help the Indian Poor.Even if you send any help it will get into the hands of the fittest.Very recently Ms.Jayalalitha former Chief Minister of Tamilnadu accused the present CM,Karunanidhi of swindling the money collected for the Srilankan Refugges.So what more do you want.What all these people are saying is the system,so called the biggest Democrazy in the world, in India, is Corrupt to the core and more poor people are being created.

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  • 24. At 11:44am on 26 Apr 2009, KEVINKAREN wrote:

    Hi fellas! Yesterday one BBC reporter who was travelling in this train has reported that India has made huge strides in all round development in last Five years. Hope he is not influenceing the voting public by appreciating the present government. My concern is because of the fact that BBC is regarded a pioneer in impartial reporting.Even otherwise India was on the path of development since last many years. What was the necessity to underline only the development of last five years?

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  • 25. At 1:34pm on 26 Apr 2009, Beyond-A-Boundary wrote:

    Interesting comments modernRavana. I just want to ask a simple question. India is corrupt. Granted. The poverty situation is alarming. Granted. But if one has to choose from various forms of governance, which one do you think should be opted? Autocracy by some megalomaniac? The communist experiment of the erstwhile Soviet Block? The totalitarian regime of China? If you ask me, I would opt for liberal democracy a thousand and one times. India is a pluralistic society. Yet democracy has by and large survived. There are issues to be addressed. I remember some of the General Elections of the time when I was a child. I see the elections for myself now. Democracy has evolved. The humongous size, the inherent pluralism and the gradual empowerment of the common man makes India's election an interesting exercise. The world might just be interested in the developments here.

    And KEVINKAREN: whatever we know of the BBC, I do not think it is trying to influence the voting public. I am not trying to say that the outgoing government was a great one. But it is also a fact that it is incidental that India has made rapid strides in the last five years and the five years before that. I would believe that to be the fruits of a democratic set up which eventually perpetuates the process of free thought and induces development.

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  • 26. At 1:46pm on 26 Apr 2009, Beyond-A-Boundary wrote:

    MartinDFerry: "My charitable activities are not relevant but as you ask I make regular monthly contributions to a number of agencies engaged in the alleviation of poverty in South East Asia. Apparently I'm also paying my licence fee so that slum kids playing in open sewers can have a shiny train to admire. I hope they appreciate it."

    I guess too much is being made out of the pittance that someone could be paying for a license fee. What about a starred question in the British Parliament? What about restricting the charter for the BBC? And that's a reasonably condescending remark regarding slum kids playing in open sewer. Irrespective of how much and how regular contributions you make for the alleviation of poverty in South East Asia, I do not think you are going to achieve that objective with this kind of an attitude. By the way, what about restricting the BBC to cover Somerset play Durham on a rainy afternoon and incorporating in its charter to contribute the saving generated out of the curtailment to some charity. The best contribution that you would have made is the license fee. You should be proud of your country's contribution to perpetuate free thought and liberal democracy in modern times. You should be proud of the BBC, mate. People like us who belong to fledgling parts of the world and do not contribute much - let alone any license fee - look upto the BBC.

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  • 27. At 2:54pm on 26 Apr 2009, MartinDFerry wrote:

    Beyond a boundary: While I agree with the important role of the media in covering elections of global significance such as the current Indian vote, I don't accept your charge of condescension. I, for one, would be unable to justify a the cost of a specially-painted first class train to a child living in a slum. Indeed I suspect that child would be able to suggest any number of better uses for the money. Pointing out that people living in slums will have an opinion on the BBC's profligacy isn't condescension.

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  • 28. At 3:41pm on 26 Apr 2009, Beyond-A-Boundary wrote:

    MartinDFerry: I didn't mean it that way of course. What I meant is that unlike in other parts of the world a train is the best mode of transportation in India. The Railways bind the country together. There are times when you indulge in the symbolic. If I understand the railroad system in India, it is not a specially painted first class train. If BBC had decided to book tickets in regular trains to travel, it might have cost them almost as much. And they won't have been able to do it. Where do you think they would have managed reserved berths for their staffer in a country where they are sold out 90 days in advance in peak summer? I, for one, is not a votary of the airline segment. Not in a country like India. Or for that matter in the US of A. It's a terrible waste in many ways. We could discuss that another day. So that brings us to the point. BBC, to my mind, have done the correct thing by deciding to cover the Indian Elections. Having decided that, it was the best mode of communication. To capture the essence of the country. Have you ever been to a Railway station in this country? Each and every Railway station is a microcosm of the country itself. The publicity in the exterior does not cost much anyway. They deserve that much profligacy. Considering the kind of following that they have in this country. All because of the right reasons. You must see to believe how much of a mad house most Indian media houses can be.

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  • 29. At 4:48pm on 26 Apr 2009, MartinDFerry wrote:

    Beyond a boundary: Thanks for those thoughtful comments, I've enjoyed our discussion. Happy to concede to your knowledge of India and its railways.

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  • 30. At 8:24pm on 26 Apr 2009, block4pat wrote:

    The "INR" is an important part of India society, viz., a binder which helps to tie the country together, at least in some fashion. Will The
    Election Train be making unscheduled stops due to the size of the
    crowds at various stations?

    If so how will this be handled?

    A major issue to any railway-man, throughout The World, is SAFETY and
    keeping UNAUTHORIZED PARTIES off of the rights-of-way, e.g., railway
    main line tracks, sidings and terminal yards. Further, in India this would include cows.

    To bring one of The World's biggest spectacles to light, so that we
    witness and enjoy, how will these two ( 2) critical issues be addres-
    sed? Further, it is my prayer for relief that of the concerns and
    issues of India's countryside be considered in your reporting - as
    is reasonably as possible.

    Mass Chaos and Confusion, but no revolution . . . what a country to
    Love and enjoy . . . except for their form of baseball and wondering cows on the railway properties.


    Pat Latz
    The Olde Trainmaster
    Avon, IN

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  • 31. At 9:57pm on 26 Apr 2009, nashvillejazz wrote:


    obviously, there are sidings at or near any station, where a stopping train gets off the main line if an unscheduled stop comes up. Even in India, there are ways the engineer can communicate with dispatch to prevent any problems.

    MartinDFerry: You're complaining about the expense the BBC incurred to paint this car for this special train, and say that money would have been better spent in charity. Why? Didn't the BBC *employ* a handful of workers to do the job; is that not better than just handing a few rupees to a beggar? And trust me, the BBC probably didn't pay more than a couple hundred pounds to get the car painted. You can find talented people who'll work all day on a hard job in India for about what you'd consider enough pay for a few minutes office work!

    And the special train itself probably costs less than airfare for the several DOZEN personnel traveling on this expedition -- it's not just one blogger.

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  • 32. At 07:44am on 30 Apr 2009, lshri405 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 33. At 08:04am on 30 Apr 2009, lshri405 wrote:


    I am a freelance jounalist based in Hyderabad, South India. I read that the ELECTION EXPRESS is arriving to Hyderabad on May 1st 2009, I would like to visit the train when in arrives in my city Hyderabad and convey my best wishes to the BBC team and also if agreed I can arrange for a press meet by coordinating with the local television media.

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  • 34. At 07:06am on 04 May 2009, U13946069 wrote:

    MartinDFerry and Beyond-A-Boundary

    I found both your views on the rationality of covering the India elections by train very interesting.It's great to see each of your opinions and a healthy discussion that explores the pros and cons of BBC coverage outside the UK.

    Living in India, I throughly enjoy the BBC and for the past year I have seen India getting lot of attention in terms of political,entertainment and economic news.I am not able to get the reason for this phenomenon , but that's the way it is.

    The BBC does not seem to display aggressive nationalism like some of the self grown national tabloids and is balanced in its opinion in news coverage.

    Looking forward to see more of your comments as the train completes its journey across this Incredible land.

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  • 35. At 03:25am on 06 May 2009, dennisjunior1 wrote:

    Soutik Biswas:
    Best Wishes for the team on the train across India....
    ~Dennis Junior~

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