Every year when the end of February rolls around, attention focuses on the Budget (usually on the last day of the month) and the Railway budget (usually two days earlier). Often more attention is given when a new party comes to power at the centre, since new epoch-making changes are expected. This year is no exception, though mid-term budgets were presented in the middle of 2014 before the new government had really got to work.
Anyone with a reasonable knowledge and interest in the Indian Railways would remember the charms of budgets in the earlier years. The main interest would lie in whether the fares were increased (they usually weren’t), followed by the introduction of new long-distance trains. And the reaction of the general public and the mass media would be predictable-any increase in fares would lead to a predictable outcry and generally the increase would be rolled back. Then there would be cries of “My city X has been neglected-only 3 new trains while city Y has got 5”.
The railfans look at things somewhat differently. These are what the British would call “anoraks”, though they actually come in various shapes, sizes and ages. Some study timetables and railway maps for pleasure, some study the workings of locomotives and signalling systems in great detail, and others may confine themselves to studies of the history of lines and trains or perhaps be satisfied by filming trains and stations. However, most of them usually end up meticulously studying the new trains and their routes as well as the new lines being opened. They have their own websites and forums* where the pros and cons of all new developments are discussed threadbare.That is how things have been in the past few decades.

Much of the charm of the budget used to lie in the little quirks of the Railway Ministers of the past who often used to toss in quotations from the holy books to make a point. They have included colourful characters like Laloo Prasad and Mamata Banerjee, less flamboyant politicians like Nitish Kumar as well as those with a professional background such as Dinesh Trivedi and the incumbent Suresh Prabhu, who is a chartered accountant who is said to be working on two doctorates at the moment.
In most years populist pressures have prevented fares from being raised although some other ways were found to extract more money from the travelling public. These included raising the quota of tatkal (last-moment) berths, introducing premium special trains and even premium tatkal fares and less obvious changes in reservation charges. The public (and even railfans) do not take much interest in increases in freight charges (not surprisingly, since most freight other than bulk commodities like minerals and petroleum products have switched to road transport).
So what was there for railfans to talk about after Mr Prabhu’s Budget on February 26? Not much. This needs some explanation. Previous budget speeches have generally given details on all the new train services, new lines and railway manufacturing units being started, while this time the focus was on the general improvements which were to be made in making railway operations more efficient, safer and capable of carrying more traffic at higher speeds. There was scarcely any mention of specific new trains or facilities (save for a brief mention of studies continuing on the feasibility of the proposed Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed service commonly known as the “bullet train”) and the DFCs (Dedicated Freight Corridors) which are known to be between Northern India and the Mumbai area, and between Northern India and the Kolkata area. There was a brief mention that a 55-km section of the eastern DFC in western Bihar would be opened soon, and that tenders for the final stages of both DFCs would be issued soon. A coy mention is made of plans for four new DFCs, though there is no clue as to where they will be laid.
This is, of course, not as exciting as the announcement of a new express train between Bangalore and Dibrugarh or even a new suburban service between Lucknow and Bara Banki. Some more specific details were given about rail connections to various ports which few of us have heard about. One of them is in Gujarat’s Kutch region called Tuna, although I doubt if you will find tuna in the seas around this port.
This budget does however go into considerable detail about how life is to be made easier for the ordinary traveller-such as how an unreserved ticket could be purchased within 5 minutes of entering the station premises, increasing the number of mobile charging points in coaches, introduction of concierge services at larger stations and even the facility of ordering wheelchairs at your destination.
There is also considerable stress on improving the cleanliness of trains and stations (being part of the Prime Minister’s “Clean India” initiative) and food service (which, with some exceptions, is generally considered to be unsatisfactory). All of these are laudable objectives which show that the Minister and his team have done some serious thinking about the future of the Railways and their important role in the country’s economy.
The saturation of the major routes (often known as the Golden Quadrilateral linking the four major cities) is recognized as a serious bottleneck in improving traffic capacity, and improving this by adding extra tracks, crossings and electrification if necessary. All of this requires large amounts of funding, but this should not be difficult to obtain from a supportive Centre.
To sum up, this Railway Budget does make a welcome change from the populism of the past 20-odd years and shows clear thinking about the problems and prospects of the railway system. But many of those who follow the Railways may be disappointed by the lack of specific details about new passenger services, though they should appreciate the move to improve the rail traveller’s general experience and comfort.

*The most popular Indian railfan group runs the website which has an active discussion forum, although it needs registration if you want to participate.

ABD does it again!

A. B. de Villiers now holds the ODI records for highest strike rates for scores above 150, 100 and 50: The latter two came to him after his 55-ball 149 against WI a month ago, and he has now added the 150 which came against the same opponents:

Scores above 150:


Scores above 100:


Scores above 50:


He even has 3rd place among scores above 25:


And of course his strike rate of 245.45 is much higher than those who have scored over 200-and it is just a matter of time before he does that as well:


Also see my earlier post from January, which in a way foretold today’s innings:

Several versions of the “Ode to Joy”

You would have been hearing a lot of national anthems recently; for  a ready reference you can turn to this:

But you would not hear the European Union’s anthem “Ode to Joy” at this World Cup or at any other sporting event. Here is one of the more popular renditions in German:

It has versions in other languages, such as this one in English:

Oddly enough, this was sung by a choir in Georgia, USA far from Europe.

And then there is Rowan Atkinson’s version, which is something else again. You need to know a bit about Germany and the German language to get all the jokes:

Someone at Youtube has kindly provided explanatory notes:

“Berlin [capital], Hamburg [city], Schumacher [Toni Schumacher = German goalkeeper]

Baden-Baden [city], Lederhosen [leather pants/trousers, traditional garb in South-Germany and Austria], schnell schnell schnell [quickly quickly quickly]

ja ja [yes yes], nein nein [no no], Apfelstrudel [apple strudel, strudel is a type of layered pastry with filling that is usually sweet], Hoffmeister [German beer type], und [and], Holsten-Pils [German beer type]

Achtung [attention], Liebfrauenmilch im Porsche [Liebfrauenmilch in the Porsche, Liebfrauenmilch = German sort of wine, Porsche = German make of car], umpa [oom-pah], Vorsprung durch Technik [advantage through technology, slogan of the German make of car Audi]

Donner und Blitze(n) [literally: thunder and lightnings – referring to Santas reindeers Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen], britischer Architekt [british architect, that was the pay-off line for a TV advert for the Rover 800 in 1988, the advert depicted sleek British-made cars purring past the “Neue Staatsgalerie” in Stuttgart, designed by James Stirling], tomorrow belongs to me [that’s an allusion to the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, a song from the American movie as well as the Broadway-Musical called “Cabaret” which thematise Berlin 1931 and the rise and takeover of the Nazis]

Schwein [pig] und [and]/ Schweinehund [skunk], Dummkopf [fool], ein Bier bitte [a beer please], Jürgen Klinsmann ist kaputt [Jürgen Klinsmann is broken, German soccer-player in the past and now a soccer-coach]

Boris Becker [German tennis player in the past and now something else], Himmel [heaven], Bum Bum [German ice sort originated in 1986 which is based on the form of a tennis racket, in reference to the moniker of Boris Becker “Bum Bum Boris” when he surprisingly won Wimbledon in 1985], Ich bin ein Berliner [I am a “Berliner”, it’s a quotation from a speech by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963. With that he was underlining the support and solidarity of the USA for West Germany 22 months after Soviet-supported East Germany erected the Berlin Wall to prevent mass emigration to the West]

?holen [?fetch], Kindergarten [kindy/nursery school, originally a German word which became as well common in the English language], Glühwein [mulled wine, a traditional drink in Central Europe which is especially popular in the Advent season on Christmas markets], wo ist sein Skipass (where is his ski pass)

Edelweiß singt Captain von Trapp [Edelweiß sings Captain von Trapp, edelweiß literal translated = noble white, but actually here it means a song from a Musical called “The Sound of Music”], dankeschön [thank you], auf Wiedersehen Pet [literaly translated = See you soon/Goodbye Pet, but actually it means the British comedy-drama TV progamme about seven British migrant construction workers who live in the first series on a building site in the German city Düsseldorf] ”

This is more of a subtle leg-pull of the average Brit whose idea of Germany is limited to stereotyped names and phrases.
It was commented that Mr Atkinson’s German pronunciation was better than that of most Brits.
Anyway here is something more conventional from him, this time playing the role of a waiter in an Indian restaurant in Britain. It is, of course, the Brits and not the Indians whose legs are pulled:
Notice the reference to an obscure Beatles song at the end.

Billy Joel meets the dotcom bust and the oncoming Wall Street meltdown

First remember the original:

Now see it adapted to the dotcom bust of the early 2000s:

And then to the coming unease on Wall Street in 2007:

And that’s not all. Terence Kawaja (the same guy behind Mad Avenue Blues) brought out a sequel in 2008. And Billy Joel later surfaced in the oddest place in India more recently.

Mad Avenue Blues and the mysteries of American Pie

This video is being used as supporting material in MBA courses in digital marketing:

Even if it didn’t make much sense to you, you would remember the original:

This is well known as one of the most incomprehensible pieces of pop music. The Wikipedia article has something on this and (in Further Reading) some links to scholarly articles trying to explain the nuances:

though it oddly gives a lot of importance to Madonna’s version:

Anyway, if you found this worthwhile you might like to hear a similar song by the same person about Wall Street-this time using Billy Joel. And the same song cropped up unexpectedly in Indian politics. More tomorrow.

The Viceroy and the ducks of Bharatpur

This time, I am not dealing with cricketing ducks even though Darren Bravo acquired a rare diamond duck today (a duck without facing a ball). The Keoladeo National Park (also called the Keoladeo Ghana Sanctuary earlier) at Bharatpur is one of the top birdwatching destinations in India. The inhabitants include a large number of ducks. Here are a few we encountered on a recent visit (which makes a convenient day trip out of Jaipur on the little-known Jaipur/Agra Shatabdi):



We now turn to Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy of India from 1936 to 1943. He had the longest tenure of any Viceroy but was not too successful, dealing with the Second World War, the Quit India Movement and the great famines in Bengal. But there was one thing he excelled in-shooting ducks at Keoladeo Ghana.

In the middle of the park there is a wall with a record of major duck shoots during the Raj. It records the number of ducks shot along with the number of guns in the party. Here is a small but important part of it:


Our friend and his party visited the park on 9 Nov 1936 (1415 ducks shot with 50 guns), again on 6 Dec 1936 (1476/41) and yet again on  6 Feb 1937 (2568/39).

But he was not done with slaughtering ducks yet. On 12 Nov 1938, his party with 39 guns accounted for no less than 4273 ducks (an average of 110 ducks per gun). Probably this would be a world record of some sort. This wall does attract the attention of foreign tourists; the Lonely Planet guide reports that 12 Nov 1938 was a particularly bad day to be a duck.

Fortunately the park is relatively well managed (compared to some others in the same state whose entire tiger population vanished) and is well worth a visit. There even was a resident tigress who was seen in 2005 and not again until she died in 2010. Another wandering tiger turned up later and was captured and sent to repopulate Sariska. Then there are the feral cattle who were abandoned in the park when some villagers were made to leave the area.

Residents of Delhi have a choice of trains to get there in 3 to 4 hours.