Report by Kamgar Ekta Committee (KEC) correspondent
“They perform an Essential Service!” OF COURSE, they do! If the Running Staff (train drivers and train managers who were earlier called guards) don’t work the movement of food, fuel and other goods will be severely affected, exports and imports will be severely affected.
Since they perform such an essential service, should they not have good service conditions and be treated with respect? Of course, they should be. That is what we the people think, but that is not what our rulers think. They wake up to the essential nature of many services like health, transport and so on, only when they want to impose ESMA (Essential Services Maintenance Act) on them in the wake of their fight for their just demands.
The conditions of the Indian Railways Running Staff (like many others in railway as well as other essential sectors) are really terrible, and just a few days back the authorities tried to make these bad conditions worse for the running staff in the Mumbai Division of Central Railway .
The agitation started in Kalyan, Lonavala and Panvel when the administration unilaterally imposed inhuman changes of duty rules on them. If these were to be implemented, it would mean that they would have to stay away from their homes and work continuously for 2 to 3 days at a time without adequate sleep and rest. The effects of these changes on their health as well as on their family, social and cultural life would be terrible indeed.
The running staff had no option but to refuse to work and bring goods train traffic ground to a halt from the morning of April 6 in this Division. They were issued threats including that of ESMA and the police were brought in to terrorise them. This however had the opposite effect and made them even more determined to fight.
The fact is that Mumbai Division has its own specific problems. The area is small, as are the distances. However, the density of mail, express (about 200 per day) and local trains (about 1800 per day) is so high, that goods train drivers have to routinely wait for hours together before they can go to the next halt where the same story is repeated. 11 hours between signing in and signing out is very common, and at times even this duration gets extended to 12-14 hours! This is because a journey that actually should take no more than 2 hours if the line had been clear, takes as many as 8 hours and at times even 12-14 hours! At times a goods train has to wait even 5 hours in the yard, waiting for a signal, though the staff is ready to drive it.
Instead of taking these specific conditions into account, the administration talks in terms of running time or distance covered. This is extremely unjust, because the Loco Drivers, Assistant Drivers as well as Train Managers (earlier known as Guards) are ready to work the full quota, and it is not their fault if they do not get the clear signal to move the trains.
As per the rules, a driver is entitled to 16 hours of rest between duties. However, this does not apply if he is away from home and has to take rest in the Running Room! In that case, his hours of rest are just half of the running time. Say if he has worked for 10 hours, he is entitled to 5 hours of rest only. This 5 hours is also only on paper. He spends about 2 hours in reaching the Running Room, freshening up, bathing, eating and then preparing himself for the next train. The time taken to walk from the Running Room or lobby to the engine is also counted as rest. Please remember that these days the goods trains are excessively long. To add to his woes, if a train comes in before that and no staff is available, he has to forget even this limited time of rest. If he refuses to do so, the officer phones him and pressurises him with the threat of suspension.
Many a time, there are no beds available in the Running Room. Forget tea and refreshments, many a time even drinking water is not provided to them. And they are expected to work for another 11 hours after this “rest”!
Another rule says that if the staff is standing less than one hour away from his destination, he cannot ask for relief. In the Mumbai Mandal, 80% trains have to stop much less than an hour away, at times, even ten minutes away from their destinations. If he asks for relief, he is pressurised and threatened.
A small error on the part of a goods train driver can result in a loss of crores or of a massive disruption in train traffic. That is how sensitive his work is. And yet, if he stops even a few inches beyond the signal his job is in danger.
Although small in area, the Mumbai Division has numerous sections and thousands of signals. It is not a child’s play to be a goods train driver here!
In the face of the tremendous united fight put up by the 1400 or so running staff members in Mumbai Division, the authorities had to back down by the second day evening, i.e. on April 7th and take back new rules about their working hours.
We congratulate the running staff for rising above all affiliations and fighting unitedly for their just demand.
Long Live Workers’ Unity!