Trade Unions express anger at Railway Minister’s Grand Plan to turn Iconic Headquarters into a Museum

The move will require over 400 employees of Central Railways to shift to another building.

MUMBAI: Since taking over as the Union railways minister in September, Piyush Goyal has made a number of innovative decisions – he got the army to help re-build the bridge at Mumbai’s Elphinstone Road railway station. This way, he reckoned, there would be no need to go through the tedious, tendering route of his ministry. Then he proposed that the iconic Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) (still commonly known as Victoria Terminus or VT) – the headquarters of the Central Railway – be turned into a museum. The grand, Gothic structure has been used as an office for over a century and Goyal’s plan is to make a more modern building for the staff and officers.

While the first suggestion was met with criticism since it involved bringing in the army for what was essentially a civilian task, the second proposal has raised hackles among trade unions and heritage lovers – the F. W. Stevens designed structure, which was built in 1888, is a historical landmark.

Speaking to The Wire, Praveen Bajpai, general secretary of Central Railway Mazdoor Sangh (CRMS), said this decision was taken without consulting the Central Railways employees. “We were not informed about such an important decision. We completely oppose it.” CRMS is one of the largest unions with over 73,000 employees supporting it.

The structure, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, also houses a small heritage gallery which is open to all. This space includes several relics and preserves from India’s first railway company. This iconic terminus serves as a tourist spot, with those interested in the history of railways and the city frequently visiting it.

Rajendra B. Aklekar, a railways buff and author of Halt Station India – The Dramatic Tale of the Nation’s First Rail Lines who was also closely involved in the restoration and documentation process, has written a Medium saying: “Converting the entire building into a museum is against the very ethos of the building.” Aklekar further points out: “Removing him (the general manager of the Central Railways) and his team out of the building will be like removing the context of the building for which it was built. It is like taking out film shows from a theatre and decorating it to celebrate the glory of films in the empty shell of the theatre… celebrating the cause, without keeping it alive. This should never happen.”

The existing museum has managed to gather some fascinating relics depicting the richness of the 19th-century railway system. Some prominent ones are the Allen & Turner lamps from the Masjid Bunder station bridge which have now been painted and erected at the entrance of the gallery; GIP Railway plaques from old DC electric masts; Mangalorean tiles and Tucker & Reeves bolt safes. It is not clear whether there will be enough material to fill the massive building.

Bajpai categorically said that the union was not opposed to focusing on the terminus becoming a heritage museum, but was against moving out. “Already there is a heritage gallery inside it. People who visit the terminus come here to witness its vibrancy and not to witness a dead silence in the museum. The employees are an integral part of the structure,” he said. The building is connected to the railway station and a senior Central Railway official admitted that it would be a task to ensure smooth functioning from another office.

The union has alleged that the railways has forgotten its priorities. “To build a full-fledged museum means parking crores of money aside for its upkeep. Besides, renting a sprawling 8,000 square feet space would mean another few crores every year. Can the railways afford this expenditure?” Bajpai asked.

The Central Railways officials have already begun the process of finding a new space to set up the headquarters. Over 400 staff members along with the general manager of the Central Railways would have to be accommodated in the new space. Officials in the Central Railways have confirmed that an “expression of interest” has already been floated for an office space of at least 8,000 square metre to be able to accomodate both the employees and the several tons of railway documents.

Politicians have eyed the building for long, pushing through many pet proposals linked to it. The Shiv Sena had first demanded that it be named after Chattrapati Shivaji, though that was done in 1996 by the then railways minister Suresh Kalmadi. Then earlier this year, Devendra Fadnavis got the word ‘Maharaj’ added to the name.

Now, Shiv Sena MP Arvind Sawant has demanded that a grand statue of Shivaji be placed in front of the building. Preparations for such a statue are already underway on the eastern side of the building near platform 18, but Sawant is not pleased with that – he wants the statue to be in the main compound, facing the Municipal Corporation building. Doing so would alter the perspective and look of this much-photographed building. Moreover, UNESCO rules do not allow that.

There has been a long-standing railway policy of not having statues on railway stations. In 1970, N. Gopalan, the then deputy director (engineering) of the Railway Board had emphasised this in a letter to all GMs when he turned down demands for statues of Mahatma Gandhi on railway stations. He quoted an earlier letter from Nehru (in April 1961) to the then railway minister expressing his disapproval to installing Gandhi statues and pointing out that even the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi had opposed it.

Meanwhile, last week, yet another innovative idea emerged from the Central Railways. Under pressure to act because of regular instances of violence against women on suburban trains, its security force has suggested that women’s compartments be painted ‘soothing saffron’ – this would inspire “courage and valour” among the women and “sacrifice and chivalry” among men, and would deter men from entering the women’s compartment.