New Delhi: Indian Railways’ workers unions have expanded the scope of their protest by including a key reform initiative of the rail ministry in their agenda for agitation – the award of Rs 40,000 crore contracts for new locomotive factories to foreign firms GE and Alstom.
A majority of the 1.3 million railway workers are preparing for the launch of the indefinite nation-wide strike beginning from 11th July, drumming up support from regional units against the government’s ‘casual’ approach towards their demands.
“This railway strike will be the biggest ever. We do not want a strike because of its negative impact on the nation and the industry but it is the last resort. We are ready to face all consequences,” Shiv Gopal Mishra, General Secretary of All India Railwaymen Federation (AIRF) told. “We have no political intentions and do not want a direct fight with the establishment but the government must talk to us responsibly,” he added.
A rail ministry spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking comments on the issue of strike threat by unions. Indian Railways had last witnessed a nationwide strike in May 1974. That strike had seen participation from more than 1.7 million workers against low wages and tough working hours. The strike went on for around 20 days before the government, under the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, suppressed it.
The unions are demanding improving the minimum wage of Rs 18,000 per month for workers as computed by the seventh pay commission to around Rs 26,000 and rejecting all the ‘retrograde’ recommendations of the panel. Another major demand is to scrap the New Pension Scheme (NPS) and restoring the Old Pension Scheme for railway workers in view of the harsh working conditions.
The government had last year set up an executive committee headed by the Cabinet secretary to look at the demands of unions. “We have had at least two meetings with the committee. They do listen to us but cannot negotiate with us. The workers’ frustration is increasing,” said Guman Singh, President of the other union National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR).
The other demands include scrapping the report of the Bibek Debroy committee on mobilisation of resources for railways submitted last year and withdrawing the notification that allowed Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to flow into the rail sector. Unions allege, the government has not looked at their demand for exemption from the NPS favorably despite letters written by former rail minister Mallikarjun Kharge and the current rail minister Suresh Prabhu.
Rail minister Suresh Prabhu had in a letter to finance minister Arun Jaitley in November last year said there is a strong merit in reconsideration of the unions’ proposal to exempt railway workers appointed on or after a January 2014 from the purview of NPS, unions said.
The unions had earlier threatened to go on strike on 11 April this year but withdrew that decision after the cabinet secretary-headed executive committee sought three months time to lok at the demands. The trade unions had on 9 June submitted notice of strike to the General Managers of all the railway zones and heads of production units based on a strike ballot conducted in February this year in which over 95 per cent workers favored strike. The unions are now chalking out a plan of action for protests till 11 July.
Both NFIR and AIRF believe their protest has gained strength with employees of other central departments joining in against the pay panel’s recommendation. NFIR General Secretary M Raghavaiah — who is also the Chairman of the National Joint Council for Action for all central government employees had last week said called the government’s response to the charter of demands submitted by unions in December 2015 was disappointing and casual.
He said the organizations representing the 3.2 million central employees – Railways, Defence, Postal, Income Tax, Central Customs & Excise etc – had decided decision on 3 June to go on indefinite strike from 11 July.