An Exclusive Interview with Ms. Vinita Srivastava, Executive Director (Heritage), Railway Board, Ministry of Railways

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Interview Insights:

Rail Analysis: Please share with our readers about your journey with the Indian Railways? How did you get started in this sector & Can you briefly share with focal point of your role today as the Executive Director-Heritage, Railway Board?

Ms. Vinita Srivastava: My railway journey began as an apprentice selected through the UPSC conducted SCRA exam in 1991, leading to a four year training in mechanical engineering from Jamalpur, Bihar and subsequent absorption into the IRSME – Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers. It’s been over two decades in operations, research, and administration and management roles since. Recent stints in ministries of Steel, Heavy Industries, Culture and the IGNCA ( a well known arts institute in Delhi) have rounded off the engineering knowledge with heritage, museology and conservation expertise as well.

As Executive Director for Heritage in the Railway Board my remit includes Rail Museums, the UNESCO protected Mountain Railways of India and other policy matters linked to railways’ industrial heritage spanning nearly two centuries of recent history. The focal point of efforts here is to preserve, conserve and showcase the dynamic heritage, and effectively tell the story, of railways pivotal role in the economic growth of India.

 


 

Rail Analysis: In today’s effort to modernize the Railways, the social importance of the Railways is very significant and what it means to the nation. Can you highlight some recent projects where modernization has been achieved along with the restoration of heritage and cultural values of a location?

Ms. Vinita Srivastava: The social importance of Railways is very significant especially in India. Transport services anywhere in the world have powerful ways to transform nations, cities, societies and economies. It’s the magic of bringing people, goods and services together with energies that result from effective connections.

Technology and Culture are both forces that have no barriers to contain them, as time has proven. It was the same with railways in India. People and businesses enthusiastically embraced the railway services even with the restrictions of colonial times. In independent India, the government owned network expanded and evolved to match the needs of a growing nation. The private sector supporting and surrounding the railways also grew almost organically, filling gaps with supporting technology and vendor bases for manufactured components, subassemblies and contractual services needed 24 X 7 to operate the massive nationwide services 365 days a year.

Modernization has many definitions and can be demonstrated in varied ways. These following examples are just two of them – my favorites when it comes to Indian Railways.  

  • Kevadia and its surrounding development showcase the reverence that the nation holds for the Iron Man of India, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel. The entire project is a synthesis of heritage, culture and modernity. From the artistic effort for the design of the sculpture itself, to bringing iron pieces contributed from all parts of India for the Sardar’s statue in beautiful symbolism, and finally to a railway station that befits this grand location.
  • Another simpler example is the makeover of Madhubani station in Bihar by artists who painted all over the station walls with heritage artworks in ‘madhubani style’. This effort has uniquely identified this railway  station with iconic local flavor.

A western understanding of “values” in heritage, culture, art and conservation cannot be applied directly to industrial heritage in India because of the inherent complexities. Negotiating these expertly is a sensitive matter needing careful thought and planning especially for railway projects that are dedicated to the public.

 


 

Rail Analysis: Many traditional railway stations are now being redeveloped. Can you share with us some interesting insights as how the Indian Railways is redeveloping these stations and also maintaining the local heritage of the city?

Ms. Vinita Srivastava: Though Station Development, or redevelopment, is not my specific area to comment on, there is need to address the heritage aspects of this exercise. Through heritage ‘form based’ codes and policies, a beginning has been made. Further a significant inclusion of local styles, artwork and architectural elements are seen included in newer station buildings recently inaugurated. Appreciation should also go to the Central Public Works department which has shown the path by its Heritage Conservation efforts for built heritage. I will quote from their informative “Handbook” published in 2013 which says:

“Conservation plans and projects for cities must take into account both the protected and unprotected components of the heritage. The three key concepts need to be understood to determine whether a property is worthy of listing as a Heritage – Historic significance, Historic integrity, Historic context.”

 


 

Rail Analysis: We have seen many passengers and industry people passionate and nostalgic about the erstwhile steam locomotives and other such vintage models. Can you share with us a brief blueprint of list of museums and heritage parks maintained by the Railways where tourists can visit to learn more about them and also about the rich history of your organization? Are you planning to expand these museums further to newer cities?

Ms. Vinita Srivastava: The National Rail Museum in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi and the Heritage Steam Centre in Rewari are both places where delightful steam locomotives and industrial era artifacts are on display. You can purchase model miniatures of beloved vintage locomotives here. All over India, the long list of Heritage Inventory of Indian Railway includes Bridges and Tunnels, Building and Stations, Coaches, Wagons, Saloons & Cranes, Diesel and Electric Locomotives, Preserved Non Working Steam Locomotives, Working Steam Heritage of Indian Railways and over 30  Railway Museums, Parks and Galleries.

Expansion is an ongoing and continual process. Innovation in digital virtual outreach in the pandemic has strengthened rail heritage in unique ways – like e-picnic for schoolchildren as a popular example from the National Rail Museum! Digital panorama of Indian Railways are on the Google Arts & Culture page also

 


 

Rail Analysis: Please highlight some key cities and towns where you are looking to enhance and promote heritage tourism in India? How can we develop the vast tourism potential in India with the help of the Railways?

Ms. Vinita Srivastava: Tourism & Catering is a separate focus area of another Railway Board Directorate. Similarly, the IRCTC has worldwide recognition for its luxury trains like the Palace on Wheels linked to heritage tourism. The point that must be understood is how domestic & foreign tourists have traditionally navigated around the geographic expanse of Southeast Asia over time.

In industrial era times of 1800s and 1900s, foreigners arrived by chartered ships and proceeded inland by the railway. Today flights and cruises and some overland routes are the chosen modes. Railways remain the network with deep reach while roads are strong contender for short distances and domestic air travel is becoming affordable too. The National Rail Plan has looked at underserved areas and details plans for last-mile connectivity for tourism needs. It has gone into specifics like identifying likely hubs of religious travel, tourism and destination cities by the year 2051. Infrastructure is to be strengthened in tandem to these projected requirements.

For legacy reasons, railways reached deep into forests and high into mountains and other picturesque locales in India, which works strongly in our favor. The vista dome coach services capitalize on scenery alongside beautiful railway routes for a unique rail-only insight into India for tourists.

 


 

Rail Analysis: Any other insights you wish to share?

Ms. Vinita Srivastava: Tourism, whether foreign or domestic, is an expression of freedom of travel. And tourists have many purposes for traveling, ranging from curiosity to religious reasons to exploration of unspoilt nature and so on. In the pandemic, this travel was restrained for human survival and the entire tourism industry is in chaotic renewal as we speak.

Only time will tell where the new tourism experience and markets are; but we know one thing – that the world has always delighted in the spices, the sights & smells, fabrics, art, culture and cuisine of India – from heritage to modernity. So that is where the answer lies. A balance of comfort and convenience to a traveler/ tourist on one hand, and a welcome that creates a home away from home on the other.


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