In 1974, railway employees demanding a wage increase staged a strike that crippled life in the country for almost three weeks. Hence Centre should be more careful on the way it is being planned by the Unions now; and should not allow nefarious politics creep into!
New Delhi: Imagine you wake up one morning and come to know that the trains are not running. Skeptical at even the thought of it? It may just come true if the 1.3 million employees of Indian Railways decide to act on a threat to go on an indefinite strike from 11 July.
A strike by workers of the national transporter, India’s largest employer, will virtually cripple life in a country where 23 million passengers and over 1,100 million tonnes of freight are carried daily by the railway.
The spark for the strike threat is the cabinet’s approval on Wednesday for recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission. The National Joint Council of Action, a confederation of central government employee organisations that claim a membership of 3.3 million, said it wasn’t happy with the minimum pay of Rs.18,000 that has been approved. Although a hefty hike from the Rs.7,000 minimum pay that central government staff earned earlier, it fell short of the Rs.26,000 demanded by the council. Railway employees form a major chunk of the 3.3 million employees it claims to represent.
In February this year, the All-India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) conducted a secret ballot for its members to decide the future course of action if its demands weren’t met. In the secret ballot, 95% of the 900,000 railwaymen from all over the country who cast their ballots supported a strike. These employees included railway men from all over the country including 17 zones and 7 production units of Indian Railways.
In 1974, railway employees demanding a wage increase staged a strike that crippled life in the country for almost three weeks.
“It was a 20-day strike and people and commodities couldn’t move an inch,” recalled Jasbir Singh, a resident of Punjab who bore witness to that strike.
“There was a lot of bloodshed and protests, from what we heard in the news on radio, as TV was a luxury at that time. Power cuts, water shortage, food prices being doubled and tripled…People were stranded and it took months to clear the backlog in passenger and freight traffic.”
Indian Railways is one of the largest transportation and logistics networkss in the world, operating some 19,000 trains daily, including 7,000 freight trains, over 65,000 kilometres of routes across 7,146 railway stations.
Out of the total freight carried by the railway, major commodities are coal, cement, iron and steel, foodgrains, oil and fertilizer.
V. Krishna Ananth who teaches history at Sikkim University, Gangtok, and recently wrote a paper in Economic and Political Weekly on ‘Remembering May 1974-The Historic Railway Workers’ Strike’ says, “Realise the strength which Railwaymen possess. Seven days’ strike of the Indian Railways, every thermal station in the country would close down. A 10 days’ strike of the Indian Railways, every steel mill in India would close down and industries in the country would come to a halt for the next 12 months. If once the steel mill furnace is switched off, it takes nine months to re-fire. A fifteen days’ strike in Indian Railways, and the country will starve.”
The All India Railwaymen’s Federation wants the prime minister’s intervention to avert such a situation.
“We gave several representations to the government…and opened several channels for negotiation but the government turned a blind eye. We have no other alternative now but to go on indefinite strike from 11 July and now an intervention at PM-level is the only way to resolve the crisis that has been created,” says Shiva Gopal Mishra, general secretary of the union,
Railway employee unions have other demands related to payment of a productivity-linked bonus, pension and a One Rank, One Pension (OROP) scheme like the one approved for defence forces.
“The government has been indifferent to railway employees despite we being the lifeline of the country. Our hard work is not being paid and around 11 lakh railway employees especially those who have joined from 1 January 2004 are in age group of 20-40 years. The young blood is not ready to compromise in any way,” said M Raghavaiah of the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR).
The government is hoping the threat of a strike will pass.
“Such threats have been given earlier too and it might be possible that the unions back-track..You can’t be sure of a strike as of now,” a railway board member said on condition of anonymity.
Railway minister Suresh Prabhu met union leaders on Wednesday and he will likely defuse the situation, the member said.
Still, do give it a thought. What if Indian Railways comes to a halt?