Excerpts of interview with Comrade Elangovan, Working President of Dakshin Railway Employee’s union (DREU)
As a newspaper and organisation that is partisan to the workers and toilers, we have been asking the leaders of the working people as to how the toilers of India view the reforms that were started 20 years ago. Whether the working class and people have benefitted from these reforms or have suffered? In the 16-31 October issue, we had begun this series with an interview of the General Secretary of the Communist Ghadar Party of India, Comrade Lal Singh. In the November 1-15 issue, we had published the interviews with the leaders of the unions of the banking and port sectors and of the loco pilots. In the November 16-30 issue, we published interviews with Insurance, Central and Western Railway Motormen’s Association, Postal Employees and a Trade Union leader of Thane District. In the December 1-15 issue, we published the interviews of leaders of the workers in some other sectors of the economy. In the previous issue, we carried an interview with a leader of the rail transport sector. In this issue, we bring you an interview with yet another leader of railway workers.
MEL: please tell us about your union.
Elangovan: The Dakshin Railway Employees union (DREU) is a union of Group C/Class 3 and Group D/ Class 4 workers. In Southern Railway, there are around 98,000 workers in these categories. The DREU has about 40.000 members.
MEL: Who has benefitted from the privatization, liberalization program?
Elangovan: Big capitalists have benefitted. In 2004, when UPA-1 came to power, the assets of the top ten capitalists accounted for Rs. 2.34 lakh crore. In 2009 the same has become Rs. 10 lakh crore. In the same period, the percentage of landless peasantry has increased from 28 to 35. Around two lakh peasants have committed suicide because of the debt burden.
Poverty has increased. Job losses have increased. Traditional jobs like tailoring, gold smithing, milk processing, and rubber have been destroyed. Government figures shows around 9.4% unemployment. Around one crore people have lost their jobs in India in this period.
MEL: What has led to worsening of the situation for the workers and the common people?
Elangovan: The government has opened up the entire economy to be controlled by private hands. Privatisation, cutback on subsidies for the workers and peasants, and massive increase in prices of essential commodities has impacted the working masses greatly.
India’s economy has changed to import-export trade based. The impact of this course on the workers and peasants has been very bad. People cannot buy essential goods, which have become beyond their reach. China stopped importing iron ore and hence steel demand stopped. In Bellary district alone, around two lakh people lost jobs. Railways got affected because of this as around 17% of rail income from goods is from transporting iron ore. Diamond industry in Gujarat was affected and workers lost jobs because the demand for diamonds from abroad fell.
Rs. 2,81,000 crore has been given to capitalists as subsidies. The revenue foregone by the government from these capitalists is as follows:
2008-09 – Rs. 4,40,000 crore
2009-10 – Rs. 5,00,000 crore
2010-11 - Rs. 5,40,000 crore
MEL: How have the Railways been affected?
Elangovan: In 1990-91, there were 16.4 lakh workers employed by Railways. Today this number has fallen to 12.32 lakhs.
The Railway Ministry under Mamta Banerjee produced a white paper for the Railways called Vision 2020. According to this paper, Rs 14 lakh crore is required as investment in Indian Railways. From 1950 till 2007, the rail lines have only increased 15%! The wagon ton load has increased twelve-fold in this period while wagon capacity has only increased three-fold. Passenger traffic has increased eleven-fold, while the number of coaches have only increased three fold. The engine capacity has increased just three times. Indian Railways have not been able to increase the capacity/supply to meet the growing demand. Rail development has not been based on need. Government does not invest in the Railways. In the Seventh 5-year plan, budgetary allocation for Railways was 7.6%. In the Tenth 5-year plan, this had fallen to 4%.
MEL: How is the government addressing these issues?
Elangovan: The Railway Ministry is saying is that we need more investment, but we have no money. Hence with the same wagons, coaches, engines, rail lines and workers, utilization has to be increased multiple times. This has been termed as “optimum utilization”. In all their railway documents, it has been described as “squeezing maximum from the minimum”, “more from less”. The effect of this was an increase in accidents.
As per the “optimum utilization” policy, guards at railway gates have to work for 12 hours. Based on the policy of “doing more with less”, they do not fill the vacancies. There are 254,000 vacancies. In 2008, there were 84,000 vacancies in the safety area alone, around 20000 drivers and so on. The work load on the existing workers has increased. A TT is dealing with 4-5 coaches. Drivers and station masters spend more time in their work. Even now, they are doing 12-14 hours of work. In 1919, ILO made the 8-hour work rule, but even today after 92 years, they are violating the basic fundamental right of workers in Railways. This is the cause of accidents.
They have cutback on cleaning and servicing of engines, wagons and coaches. They have declared that trains will be serviced only after they run for 3500 km. Wagons used to be serviced once a year; now they are serviced only once in 18 months. All these are leading to accidents like derailment.
The load limit on wagons was 50 tons. Now it has been increased to 60 tons. Railway lines are affected, as well as the speed of trains. Wagon turnaround time has been reduced to increase the usage of wagons. With all these changes, they have cutback on introduction of 250 new engines. The drivers rest has been cut, their workload has been increased.
In Indian Railways, there are around 17,000 unmanned level crossing gates. In Southern Railway alone there are around 1156 gates which are unmanned. Lot of people die in accidents in level crossings. 90 percent of deaths in level crossings are in those which are not manned. Already there is a shortage of 5000 persons to man the current gates. There is a shortage of trackmen who inspect the tracks. In Tamilnadu there are 5000 vacancies for trackman. The Railways Ministry’s vision document made declarations of manning the unmammed gates, but nothing has been done.
There are only two Coach factories in the country. In 2006, it was proposed to establish another coach factory in Rai Bairelli, Sonia Gandhi’s constituency. The estimated cost was Rs 1650 crores. They gave an international tender. Nobody has responded to this tender. Government has put in only up to 100 crores. Till today, the coach factory has not come up.
There is only one factory each producing wagons, engines, diesel engines, and electric engines. Lalu Prasad proposed an electric engine factory in a place called Marona in Bihar. The Railway Ministry proposed a Public Private Partnership (PPP). Not even one private party was prepared to invest. There is no factory.
The capitalists are not coming forward because gestation period to realize returns is too high. Capitalists want immediate returns. It is the government which has to invest to develop the Railways.
MEL: Can you tell us about outsourcing and contract labour in Railways?
Elangovan: From 2002, they changed the regulations. Railway line maintenance is given on contract. Coach maintenance, feeding water for coaches in stations, have been given to private companies on contract.
Even production has been handed over to private companies in many cases. For the Duronto train the contract says that for 5 years, there is no need to do any full service. But in two years, the side bearer, which bears the bogies’ (4 wheel unit) pivot has cracked. This side bearer was manufactured earlier by Railways, in their factories. Now that is outsourced. During manufacture, this used to be cooled naturally. But in the outsourced factory, this is being manufactured by water cooling. Due to this, it is unable to take impact and has cracked. The contractor will only give inferior quality and faulty products to maximize profits. In many instances, the work given on contract has been left unfinished. It is being taken up again by Railways. Contracting is a menace in Indian Railways. It has resulted in increase in accidents.
There are around 7.5 lakh contract workers in Indian Railways. 20 years back, there were 50,000 contract workers. In Erode electric loco shed, a lot of work is being done by contract workers. The salary of contract workers is very poor. The toilet cleaners in Chennai central station get only Rs 90 a day. They are entitled to get 251 rupees as per the Minimum Wages Act. Railways gives Rs 251 to the contractor which of course does not reach the workers. These workers are not even given an identity card.
Contract workers have no rights. If they get hurt, they have to spend for their treatment from their pocket. We have organized a contract workers union for them and are fighting for their rights. When you contract work out to labour contractors, product quality is inferior, work conditions are bad, work load is high, salary is meager. Railway line contract workers are not given any safety tools or protective uniform. Lot of workers have died, hit by the trains. They do not get any compensation. We are fighting to get compensation for the workers.
MEL: What is the situation regarding health care of railway employees?
Elangovan: The Rakesh Mohan committee recommended that the Railways health department should be privatized. They also asked for the painting work of the Railways and cleaning of railway colonies to be privatized. Because we have fought over it, they have not been able to privatise the medical facilities for the railway employees. Instead what they have done is to introduce lot of contracting. Many doctors are appointed on contract. The contracted doctors are not serving on a long-term basis. They go away when they get better offers; this causes discontinuity of good doctor care to the railway employees. Earlier, railway hospitals would perform the medical tests with their own facilities. But now, they have given it to private enterprises on an outsourced basis. This has caused deterioration of the services. Employees have to run around between the hospital and various other services located elsewhere. The costs are high and the qualities of services are low. Medicines are not available in sufficient quantity. Medical staff are lacking the necessary equipment. Thus, there are a lot of such shortcomings because they are privatizing and introducing contract mechanism wherever it is possible, even in the area of medical care of railway employees.
Adequate budget is not allocated to maintain and develop Staff quarters. Budget allocation to maintain staff quarters three years back was Rs 20 crores, two years back it was Rs 18 crore, last year it was Rs 15 crore and this year it is 12 crore. As prices increase, should budgets be increased or reduced? Many quarters are having to be condemned due to lack of maintenance. The percentage of staff having quarters has reduced to 28%. No whitewashing has been done or proper tar roads or fencing protection given.
On the other hand, the CAG has reported that the productivity of a railway staff increased 1.5 times between 2005-06 and 2008-09. This has been achieved through intensified exploitation of the workers.
MEL: What is the impact on users of the Railways?
Elangovan: The Government and the CAG have been harping on increasing losses of the Railways. We can expect increase in fares and cargo rates soon.
The claim of Railways that they have not increased the cargo rates and fares is false. For cargo, earlier there were 4000 commodities of cargo items which had separate rates for each of them. Now they have around 12 categories of commodities. This categorization has raised the cost of transport of many goods, including food items. Regarding passenger fares, they have taken tricky ways. Around 200 trains were named as superfast trains, one fine morning. The definition of superfast trains is that it should go at a speed of 55 kmph, it should have a pantry car and other facilities. The same trains, which used to stop in the same number of stations, have been declared superfast. The fares were increased without ensuring that these trains met the superfast standards. The second way of increasing travel prices is converting a large number of seats into Tatkal. If you book the return ticket in source station, you are charged extra money. Railway ticket sales have been privatized and these tickets are costlier. Thus there have been many ways they have increased the charges from the travelers.
MEL: What is the conclusion?
Elangovan: The aim of liberalization, privatization and globalization has been to hand over public assets to private capitalists for maximum profits. Workers have been attacked on all sides. The allocation for Railways have been reduced. There has been massive exploitation of resources and workers in Railways, thereby creating lot of hardship and accidents. We must unite and fight against this whole capitalist program.