Indian railway employees undertake eleven-day protest

Fear and uncertainty faced by the railway employees have increased during the second tenure of far-right Bharatiya Janata Party government.

August 30, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
Railway employees
Railway employees are holding an eleven-day demonstration against the reforms proposed by the government for the Indian railway sector.

Under the banner of the West Central Railway Employees’ Union (WCREU), railway employees across West Central Railway branches, in Bhopal, Jabalpur and Kota divisions, are staging an eleven-day protest which began on August 26. The protest was carried out by the railway employees’ union against the proposals related to the Indian Railways under the 100 Days Action Plan in the second term of the right-wing government of prime minister Narendra Modi.

The railway employees’ union will gather for these eleven days, at different branches, to assert their demands, including the “scrapping of the much-criticized new pension scheme and the release of allowances according to the seventh pay commission, among other things.”

With the slogan of “Save Railways, Save Nation”, the WCREU, an All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) affiliated union, is organizing demonstrations by railway employees against the Center’s policies promoting corporatization and privatization. According to the union, such moves will put the financial viability of the national carrier in jeopardy.

The Narendra Modi-led government has already decided to corporatize seven production units of the railways and plans to turn them into a single government-owned entity, named the Indian Railway Rolling Stock Company. 

Though the government claims that such policies will bring about operational efficiency, the AIRF has termed them as a “cosmetic change”, turning one legal entity into another without any tangible benefit.

In a letter sent to the Railway Board’s Chairman, the AIRF has opposed the restructuring of the production units, giving the example of the successful Rae Bareli’s Modern Coach Factory (MCF), which, incidentally, is the first unit scheduled to be corporatized. The factory doubled its production of the previous year in the financial period between 2018-19, with projections to even triple its production in the current financial year.

“Even on the fronts of cost and economies of production, the MCF has established a record by turning out top quality coaches at the lowest cost. As is evident from the fact that, in the Financial Year 2018-19, coach out turn was 1425 coaches on an average cost of Rs. 2.06 crore (Rs. 20.6 million or approximately USD 0.29 million), having total number of 2,201 employees on roll only,” the letter ascertained.

Interestingly, the AIRF also mentioned BSNL as a “glaring example” of the failure of corporatization of an otherwise “highly profitable departmental entity”. Such apprehensions are identical to those expressed by the defense civilian employees of the Indian Ordnance Factories, another departmental unit which was turned into a public sector unit (PSU).

Senior journalist Arun Kumar Das following the developments said the consequences of this move will outsource features like ticket pricing, catering, on-board housekeeping, linens, ticket checking and other amenities to private players. While there is unrest over the issue, the protests across the county are not organized enough to force the government to reconsider its decision.

Ravi Kumar Jaiswal, zonal president of the WCREU in Jabalpur, has stated that the eleven-day demonstration is only a trailer. He claimed that railway employees across the country will come out on the streets to protest, if the government does not withdraw its decision.

To make matters worse, the Railway Board has issued instructions to all the railway zones last month to review the performance of employees who have completed the age of 55 or have been in service for 30 years, to decide upon their retirement from the services, putting well over 300,000 railway jobs online.

However, soon after reports of this development began surfacing in the media, the Railway Ministry issued a clarification saying that such review exercises were routine and conducted by the administration in “public interest”.

As the Indian Railways, the nation’s largest departmental undertaking, stands to lose its public serving character, protests are being observed at different places across the nation by numerous railway employees’ unions. Whether the ruling government will pay any heed to the concerns raised by the unions, remains to be seen.