By Narendra Sharma
NEW DELHI: The recent political shakeup in the Railway Ministry has incidently revealed that railwaymen are a worried lot. Their concern about financial viability of Railways and its safety and security seems to have pushed the Railwaymen Federations to openly lend support to railway fares increase which is part of the annual Railway Budget 2012-13.
The railwaymen supporting Railway fare increase has happened for the first time in their long history. They are quite conscious of this fact. The railwaymen organisations including All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF), National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR), The Federation of Railway Officers Association (FROA) and All India RPF Association (AIRPFA) have sent a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh underlining two demands: one, the Railway fare hike should not be rolled back because any such move would have adverse impact on financial stability and sustainability of the Railways; and two otherwise, the Government itself should make good the shortfall in the Railway Budget.
The 14 lakh railwaymen keep this largest network of Railways in the world running uninterrupted day-and-night. Moreover, it is still expanding. The political changes in States keep putting further pressures on Railways which make it more complex for railwaymen to keep this lifeline of the poor countrymen running unhampered.
How come the railwaymen suddenly became so worried about Railway finances this time? AIRF General Secretary S.G. Mishra says that they were themselves facing problems with railwaymen becoming more and more restless everyday. They were aware of Railways financial problems. This time, however, at our own level we had a collective discussion on this issue and the likely options, Mishra has said, and added that even before the Budget we had sent representation to the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, suggesting that the general Union Budget should also take care of the financial problems facing Railways.
Federations’ leaders think that Railways do not have many sources to tap for raising finances. Raising fares is one which cannot be repeated too often. Reducing expenditure could be another. But, how and where, and that without risking safety and security? Using Railway fallow lands on commercial basis is also one of the possible resource-raising ground. Some suggest that it could be used on PPP basis.
According to AIRF leader Mishra, his organisation had opposed in 2011 any hike in fares for weaker sections, who had no other option but to depend on Railways for travelling to and fro workplaces. But, he said, now AIRF feels “rationalisation of fares” to be justified. Railwaymen Federations can be seen to have come to the conclusion that the Railway monolith suffers from three problems: the financial crisis is one and shortage of manpower and increasing restlessness among its workforce are the other two. These need urgent attention of all concerned.
According to the AIRF general secretary S.G. Mishra, as of now virtually all development works of Railways are at standstill due to financial crisis. One crisis leads to another. The financial crisis has resulted in large scale vacancies remaining unfilled. He revealed that there were as many as 2,50,000 vacancies “of which 1.50 lakh vacancies are in frontline safety category alone”. He says, “we are 30 per cent short of staff in the area of track maintenance, ticket check staff etc.” While this critical manpower shortage continues, the number of trains keeps increasing every year. The result is that as many as 19,000 trains are being run every day with the same staff.
The Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi’s Railway Budget 2012-13 focussing on increasing fares, invited the anger of his Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and made him quit the Ministerial post. This further heightened the controversy over fare hike and brought forth various other problems bedeviling the Railways like financial crisis, manpower shortage coupled with large number of unfilled vacancies as well as its development plans running aground. This will certainly pose serious problems before the new Trinamool Railway Minister Mukul Roy whatever may be his views on fare hike.
It should be obvious to all concerned that the country cannot afford to allow the Railway system to deteriorate due to financial crisis. This remains a convenient transport system for 80 per cent of the people. The entire labour movement needs to take note of this controversy in Railway system and standby railwaymen’s struggle to improve the Railway system.
Railwaymen’s Federations say that the Railway needs financial support from the Government but the Government seems to be least interested in supporting the Railway Ministry. The UPA-II rulers, unfortunately, are interested in only expanding the scope of liberalisation and privatisation, in industry and agriculture unmindful of its implications for people.
The central trade union organisations have plans to meet in Mumbai in early May to plan their future course of action post-February 28 nationwide strike. They have planned this meeting in Mumbai only to ensure presence in the meeting of the ailing AIRF chief Umraomal Purohit. This should provide an occasion for leaders of the entire labour movement to review the problems facing Railways as well. (IRL-IPA)