John Hoffmire: You’ve had an interesting career that spans mechanical engineering, the transportation sector, and cultural preservation. That’s an unusual mix. I’d love to learn more about how that came about?
Vinita: I don’t see it as such an unusual mix. I’ve always had a love for the Indian railroads. You see, a railway isn’t just tracks and trains. It’s the backbone of the country, connecting people and goods with the various remote parts of our country. The Indian rail system is the fourth largest network in the world. Beyond the immense utility of the railways, there is also a rich cultural, economic, and historical significance to it. As such, it’s been a great field to work in.
I’ve had an interesting journey in this field. I started out with a degree in mechanical engineering. My first job was as a vendor development engineer working on Indo-German transfer of technology with ALSTOM-LHB. Over time, I worked in various mechanical and operational positions for the Northern and Southern railways, steel, and manufacturing. In 2011, I earned an executive masters degree in management from IIM Ahmedabad. That gave me a chance to expand my interest and reach beyond the mechanical engineering side of things. The new degree also led me to a position with the Ministry of Culture where I worked in the areas of heritage studies, cultural mapping, museology, and conservation architecture.
One of the highlights of my more recent career is helping establish and run the National Mission on Cultural Mapping (NMCM). Its purpose is to address the necessity of preserving the threads of rich Indian art and cultural heritage, and to convert the vast and widespread cultural canvas of India into an objective cultural map while helping create a strong “cultural vibrancy” throughout the nation.
While I still carry the lessons from the NMCM, I’m currently the Executive Director (Heritage) at the Railway Board, which combines all that I love about the railways and culture of India. Indian Railways has more than 160 years of rich history and a wide spectrum of both tangible and intangible heritage. It’s the proud owner of four UNESCO accorded World Heritage Sites namely Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (1999), Nilgiri Mountain Railway (2005), Kalka Shimla Railway (2008) and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai (2004). There are two more in waiting or on the tentative list namely Matheran Light Railway and Kangra Valley Railway. In addition, while working with the NMCM in 2018, I was instrumental in developing a bilateral memorandum of understanding for cultural and conservation information for the UNESCO World Heritage Site temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Today, Indian Railways maintains 34 museums, heritage parks and heritage galleries, spread all over India, designed to preserve the railway heritage of India. The National Rail Museum in New Delhi and regional rail museums at Chennai, Mysore, Howrah and Nagpur are iconic tourist destinations in their regions.
John: I’ll admit that when I think of Indian railways, I think of crowded trains and all that goes into the huge network of rail lines and rail cars. I don’t think much about the cultural heritage of the rail system. Please help me understand more about what cultural mapping, and tangible and intangible assets mean and how they apply to the rail lines?
Vinita: The precise definition of cultural mapping, also known as cultural resource mapping or cultural landscape mapping, refers to a wide range of research techniques and tools used to “map” distinct peoples’ tangible and intangible cultural assets within local landscapes around the world. The mission at the NMCM was to envision and address the necessity of preserving the threads of rich Indian art and cultural heritage.
In my current role, my work is to help someone like you see beyond the tracks and the trains into the richness of the history and heritage of the rail systems in India. Our ‘heritage charter’ is to preserve and make available the tangible and intangible heritage and history of the Indian railways, the industrial revolution, and the different modes of transport and their socio-cultural impact on Indian society.
As for assets, some examples of tangible assets in this case include steam locomotives, meter gauge rolling stock, wooden body coaches, wagons, equipment, and artifacts that are no longer in operation now. With their phasing out, lots of maintenance practices have also been gradually forgotten. At times, it becomes impossible to locate an artisan who can do the valve setting of a steam locomotive or a carpenter who can precisely fix the door of a wooden body saloon.
That’s when we start dealing with the intangible assets – the heritage of the skills and techniques and the popular memory transmitted from generation to generation, providing people with a sense of identity. This is why the Indian Railways, in addition to being a transportation mode, occupy a special place within the national heritage of India.
When the tangible and intangible assets of the Indian Railways are appropriately preserved and open for public display, they create memories of the past in the hearts of the future generation and thus help maintain a continuity of human experience. It is the Railway Board’s prime duty to safeguard this living heritage and to transmit it intact to future generations.
John: You certainly have had a fascinating career journey. It speaks to how one’s interests evolve and expand as one engages with work and opportunities to learn and grow. Speaking of such, tell me about your experience as a Chevening Research, Science and Innovation Leadership (CRISP) Fellow at St Cross College, Oxford University.
Vinita: The Chevening experience was, starting right from the point of selection as a CRISP scholar, a hugely empowering experience, giving me tremendous confidence in my abilities. The authenticity of the selection process as well as its thoroughness is capped only by the highly qualified cohort I shared my time at Oxford with. Each day was packed with learning inside and out of the classroom, interacting with an array of brilliant, almost incandescent minds.
Coming back to India, and networking with the larger Chevening community has ensured continuity. The resolution to any vexing problem was then just a phone call away, because of the wide-ranging expert base that the Chevening program has carefully curated over the years in India and southeast Asia. Last but not the least, is the warmth and cheer brought in by you, Richard and your families, who went above and beyond the call of mentorship to make us feel truly comfortable and involved in a short span of time.
The shift from core engineering to the more human aspects of its impact on society was easier to understand with CRISP lessons about science, research and innovation. And Miranda Cresswell’s sessions on art for scientists led me to rediscover my passion for painting, a hugely satisfying hobby.
John: Thank you, Vinita. You’ve helped me realize how industrial components of a society have much more than just an economic and environmental effect on a country. I wish you all the best with your good work.
Vinita: Thank you. I hope you’ll come back to India sometime soon and ride the train lines. I think that will give you an even better understanding of the cultural importance of the Indian rail line. And thank you for taking the time to do this interview.
Vinita Srivastava is the Executive Director (Heritage) at Railway Board and an alum of the Chevening Research, Science and Innovation Leadership (CRISP) Programme, 2017.
Interviewer: Dr. John Hoffmire is the Chairman of the Center on Business and Poverty, and Research Associate at the Oxford Centre for Mutual and Co-owned Business