By Shri Girish Bhave, Joint Secretary, Kamgar Ekta Committee (KEC)
This article is based on the information provided by activists of the All India Railway Trackmaintainers’ Union (AIRTU)
Running the railways is not possible without the collaborative toil put in by several different categories of workers. We have seen in previous articles how hard Station Masters and Loco Pilots (Engine Drivers) have to work. To add to their woes, there are a large number of vacancies. They are routinely stressed and overworked and their physical and mental health suffers as a result. This is true of practically every category of employees working in the Indian Railways (IR) and badly affects the safety of all those who travel by train.
The case of the track maintainers (TM) is even more shocking. According to the Lavasa Committee Report published 6 years ago, about 40 TM are killed every month by being run over during the course of their duty. This amounts to about 500 TM killed every year! We certainly cannot call these “accidents”, because they are preventable. But the IR thinks that these workers are expendable!
Though the actual sanctioned strength of trackmen is 5 lakhs, currently only 3 lakhs posts have been filled. Out of this, only about 2 lakhs do the work of track maintenance, while about a lakh are diverted to carry out office errands and house hold duties as per the whims and fancies of the authorities! This means that a normal gang of trackmen which should have consisted of 50 trackmen, only 20 are there to actually carry out the work. This obviously puts them under tremendous pressure and impacts the safety of trains.
To add to that, the Railways are reducing current work force of track maintainers and have started deploying private workers on contract basis. This compromises work quality and safety because these workers are not properly trained. These contract workers are paid a miserable wage of Rs. 7500 per month. They are denied DA and other benefits. In many cases, the contractor “shows” a certain number of workers employed by him and pockets their wages, while the work they were supposed to do falls on the shoulders of the regular track maintainers.
Promotions are almost impossible for track maintainers and this is one of their biggest problems. They are not allowed to appear for certain inter-departmental transfer exams. The IR has removed 30,000 posts of permanent way supervisors, further cutting down opportunities for promotion.
Harsh working conditions of TM impacting health and longevity:
- Working hours are undefined. Despite working for 9 hours from 8 am to 5 pm, the authorities may mark them as absent or as present only for half a day.
- The place of work is not fixed and they are assigned duty every morning. It is not easy to reach the place of work – there is no conveyance.
- The TM have to carry 40-50 kg of tools on their shoulders and trudge for up to 8 km in between sections. This trek plus the hours of hard labour result in lapses of concentration, grievously affecting the safety of TM as well as passengers.
- Totally unreasonable ad unrealistic targets that put tremendous physical and mental pressure on the workers.
- For night patrolling a single TM has to walk for 20 km in all kinds of weather conditions. This has the added danger of getting bitten by poisonous insects or snakes or being attacked by wild animals.
- The lives of innumerable TM could be saved if two people are sent together or safety devices warning them of approaching trains are provided, but this is not done. This also applies to key men who have the arduous task of inspecting tracks from 5 km to 10 km.
- Salaries are not enough to ensure that they get the nutritious food that is essential for the heavy work they have to do.
- Sometimes they have to wade through dirty water contaminated with human faeces, in the process of maintaining the tracks. They are not provided with the requisite safety equipment and fall ill from contagious diseases. They do not get disease allowance.
- Whether it is blazing summer with temperatures as high as 50 degree Celsius or bitter cold or heavy rains, they have no option but to eat their lunch in the open air next to the tracks. There is no drinking water facility for them.
- The condition of the 8,000 women track maintainers is even worse, with no separate rest rooms and washing or changing rooms, either at stations or at work places.
Specific problems of night work
- Changes the body cycle, resulting in indigestion, gastric problems, etc.
- Sleep deprivation
- No refreshments given, only water
- Sometimes, the day workers are relieved at 4:00 pm and then are asked to again report at 10:00 pm for another shift! Considering the travel time, they do not get even six hours of rest between two duties.
- No overtime payment is given if the work extends beyond 8 hours. In fact, the night allowance has been reduced to Rs. 118 from Rs. 152.
Flagrant violation of rules by the authorities.
As per the Railway Board’s circular dated 5th February 2018, track maintainers are supposed to be provided safety shoes every six months, raincoats once every year and winter clothes once every two years. They have to be given Rakshak or safety devices which alert them to approaching trains, etc. All the safety gear and tools are supposed to be of a standard quality prescribed by the railways.
The ground reality is very different. They are either not provided any of this, or if given the quality is very poor:
- In many places, shoes have not been provided for 4 years!
- Gloves are of poor quality and they get damaged very fast. Often they are too tight to wear or use.
- No safety goggles have been provided for years.
- They are not provided with any medical kit.
The All India Railway Track Maintainers’ Union has been raising these issues to the authorities, but they have done nothing to address them.