Interview with the National Working President of All India Railway Track Maintainers Union

Mazdoor Ekta Lehar (MEL) is carrying out a series of interviews with the leaders of different associations of railway workers, representing the engine drivers, guards, station masters, train controllers, signal and maintenance staff, track maintainers, ticket checking staff, etc. Here in the third part of this series, we are presenting excerpts of the interview of Com. Dhananjay Kumar, National Working President of All India Railway Track Maintainers Union (AIRTU).

MEL: We know that there are a large number of problems faced by track maintainers in the Indian Railways. We would like to begin by asking you about the lack of safety and security for track maintainers at the workplace.  

Dhananjay Kumar (DK): It is shocking that safe working conditions for track maintainers are practically non-existent. This is evident from the Lavasa Committee Report 5 years ago which said that nearly 40 track maintainers are killed on the tracks every month by being run over. This comes to 500 track maintainers being killed every year! The figure is much higher now.  

Our working conditions are very harsh. They affect our safety, and they adversely affect all those who travel by train – including the engine drivers, guards and ticket checkers, who have to travel every day as a part of their work. And of course they affect the crores of passengers who use our trains every day.

One of the main problems facing track maintainers is that our working hours are undefined. The railway authorities exploit us to the maximum possible and use dictatorial ways to achieve this. They treat us like slaves and get unlimited work done which is often way beyond our physical capacity. Despite working from 8 am to 5 pm (which amounts to nine hours), if the authorities are not satisfied with the work we have carried out, we may be marked as absent or issued p/2 (present only for half day)!

Our place of work is not fixed and we are assigned duty in the morning at 8 am. They don’t plan the work prior to the shift and after reporting for work, we are sent to another section and we face lot of problems to reach there.

Our instruments are from ancient colonial times and they weigh as much as 40 to 50 kg. We have to carry them on our shoulders for up to 8 km in between sections. The railways have not done any modification of our tools to make it more comfortable to handle them and this has led to excessive burden of work. We often get tired by carrying such a heavy load to our workplace and we are made to work indefinitely. This results in lapses in security and safety of the track maintainers as well as passengers.

One of the main jobs of track maintainers is night patrolling. We are forced to do night patrolling all alone for a distance of 20 km in all weather conditions. This is like sentencing us to death. We often get bitten by poisonous insects and wild animals while doing night patrolling and since one single person is sent for night patrolling, he becomes victim of run over whenever train approaches from a corner or a blind spot. Railway doesn’t take responsibility of death of these track-men. Indian railway can save these precious lives by sending two people for night patrolling instead of a single person. In addition we should be provided with safety devices which will automatically warn us if any train is approaching. These devices were approved by the Railway Board for supply to trackmen three years ago but still we have not received them.  

Keymen are also made to work alone which results in many cases of being run over by trains. Every day the keyman or patrolman has to inspect a section of track that extends from 5 km to 10 km. He has to walk up and down his beat section to inspect both rail lines. He is all alone in this arduous task. In addition he has to carry heavy equipment which weighs 15 to 20 kg. Patrolmen have to walk slowly and they have to look carefully at every section of the tracks. This patrolling is done throughout the year, day and night, through rainy season, winter season or hot summer season. The heavy equipment and the long stretch of track that he has to inspect wear him out and being all alone he becomes very susceptible to being run over. If the Indian Railways ensured that keymen worked in pairs carrying out inspections, instead of being deployed alone, than many lives of key men can be easily saved.  

We track maintainers who perform the critical task of inspecting and maintaining the railway tracks are given workloads without any labor standard and as per the will of the management. We are given targets to finish two to three days’ work within one day which puts huge mental and physical pressure on us. Several track maintainers get so exhausted due to excessive physical work and mental pressure that they do not notice approaching trains and get run over. This is a big problem.

MEL: What other problems do you face in night work?

DK: Working in night shift changes the body cycle and creates adverse effects on our bodies like indigestion, gastric problems, etc. Also those working in night shift do not get sufficient sleep. We have to pace our work in the night so as to finish it in the stipulated time. We need to carry and shift heavy materials in the night. We are not provided any transportation and so we carry it on our shoulders.

Track maintainers working in night shift are not provided any refreshments. They get only water. In all public sector units those working in night shift are provided milk and refreshments. Track maintainers also should be provided milk and refreshments while working in night shift.

Sometimes, the day workers are relieved at 4:00 pm and then are are asked to again report at 10:00 pm for another shift! This should be stopped because it means that there is a gap of only 6 hours in between two duties. After the heavy work we have carried out during day time, how can the authorities demand that we track maintainers come back again to work in the night shift? We do not even get six hours of rest if you take the travel time and the time to wash up and eat into consideration.

If we are made to work beyond 8 hours in a shift then we should get double rate of payment for the extra hours of overtime. We do not receive such overtime payment. . What is most shameful is that the railway authorities have curtailed our allowances. Now they have reduced our night allowance to Rs. 118 from Rs. 152.

MEL: How does your work affect your health?

DK: Our salaries are very low. The callousness of the railway authorities is such that they do not even ensure that we are able to eat nutritious food. We do not get sufficient amount of calories, proteins, vitamins, etc. that we require to maintain ourselves in good health and to compensate us for the heavy work that we perform every day. We have to maintain families and we have to sacrifice our requirement of nutritious food. We often fall sick and contract dangerous diseases because of our working conditions. If we compare the work of a track maintainer and a soldier, both perform rigorous physical toil daily. Just as the soldier is given nutritious food every day to protect the borders, the track maintainers should also be given the necessary nutritious food to protect the rail tracks which are used by 900 crore Indians every year! Both the soldier and the track maintainer are employed by the same Central Government. It is the responsibility of the Government to provide nutritious food at subsidised rates to the track maintainers of the Indian Railways.

Our working conditions are harsh and we often have to wade through dirty water contaminated with human faeces, in the process of maintaining the tracks. We are not provided with the requisite safety equipment and we fall ill from contagious diseases. We do not get disease allowance.

Another big problem is that we are forced to have lunch in the open air in all weathers and just next to the tracks, be it in the hot summer temperatures of as much as 50 degree Celsius or bitter cold or heavy rains. There is no drinking water facility provided to us.

We should be given hard duty and risk allowance due to the harsh nature of our work.

To add to our problems, unlike other railway workers in the same grade as us, we are not allowed to take part in the LDCE (Limited Department Competitive Examination) which allows promotion and transfer to other departments. This is a gross injustice against track maintainers!

MEL: Are women employed as track maintainers?  

DK: There are 8,000 women workers among track maintainers. The women workers face even worse conditions. They are not provided separate rest rooms and washing/changing rooms. Such facilities are not even available at the railway stations and when they go out for inspection of tracks or repair works, there is no facility along the way either. Also some unruly passengers hurl abuses and nasty comments at them.

MEL: What personal kit are you provided for your work?

DK: There are several things on paper, but nothing on the ground! As per the Railway Board’s circular issued on 05-02-2018, track maintainers are supposed to be provided safety shoes every six months, raincoats once every year and winter clothes once every two years, Rakshak or safety devices which will alert them of approaching trains, etc. All the safety gear and tools are supposed to be of a standard quality prescribed by the railways. We are not provided with any of these or if provided at all they are of substandard quality. For example in many places safety shoes have not been provided for 4 years!

We are provided with two pairs of gloves. These are not of proper quality and get damaged very quickly. Woollen gloves are most prone to damage at an early stage. Other gloves which are provided are too tight to wear or use. We have not been provided goggles for safety of eyes for the last three years. We are not provided any medical kit.

MEL: How do the working conditions of the track maintainers affect the safety and comfort of the rail passengers?

DK: Track maintainers are carrying out a very crucial task to ensure safety of trains running on railway tracks. Track maintainers should be provided safe and comfortable working conditions so that they can perform their vitally important duties efficiently. But sadly the opposite is what is taking place. The railway authorities are putting extreme pressure on the track maintainers and increasing our work load which impacts the safety of anyone who travels by trains.

Employing track maintainers on contract obviously impacts the safety of passengers as well.

MEL: How has the privatization that is being introduced step by step in the Indian Railways, affected the track maintainers?

DK: We track maintainers are badly affected by privatization of railways and there are many problems we face. First of all we don’t get promotion as they have removed PWS (permanent way supervisors’ posts). This has been a great set back as far as providing promotion opportunities for us. This has also gravely compromised safety and security of train travel. The Railways has removed 30,000 PWS posts. They are reducing current work force of track maintainers and have started deploying private workers on contract basis which compromises work quality and safety. These contract workers are paid a miserable wage of Rs. 7500 per month. They are denied DA and other benefits.

MEL: What is the total number of track maintainers currently employed in the Indian Railways and what is the actual sanctioned number?

DK: Currently there are nearly 2 lakh track maintainers actually working on the tracks though the total number of track maintainers is 3 lakhs. One lakh track maintainers are diverted by the authorities from their duties to carry out office errands and house hold duties as per the whims and fancies of the authorities! The actual sanctioned strength of trackmen is 5 lakhs. 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 which leads to extreme pressure on them.

MEL: Is there any move by the railway authorities to decrease the number of sanctioned posts of Track maintainers by surrendering the posts?

DK: Not recruiting any new people and destroying the accepted sanctioned posts has been the common practice of the railway management. Recently the railway management issued orders in which we track maintainers are also included and which says that any employee who has attained the age of 55 years or has completed 30 years of service, whichever comes first will be forcefully retired. This is aimed at facilitating of reducing the number of regular track maintainers and handing over of track maintenance to private companies,

MEL: Has the All India Railway Track maintainers Union send notice to the railway authorities for your problems and rights?  

DK : Yes, All India Railway Track maintainers Union has send notices on the various problems faced by the track maintainers, on allowing LDCE open to all, 30% hard duty and risk allowance, disease allowance, ending New Pension Scheme (NPS ) and against Privatization of Railways.

MEL: What has been the response of the railway authorities?

DK: The Railways authorities have been very callous and dictatorial and they don’t pay attention to our problems.

MEL: Thank You comrade Dhananjay Kumar for this very informative interview. MEL fully supports the just demands of the Track Maintainers of the Indian Railways. It is necessary for all rail workers as well as the entire working class and passengers to support these just demands!

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