Working conditions of Railway worker: Interview with the Secretary General, All India Train Controllers’ Association

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. In the fourth part of this series, we are presenting excerpts of the interview of MEL with Com. D. Vara Prasad (DVP), Secretary General, All India Train Controllers’ Association (AITCA).

MEL: Unlike many other railway workers, train controllers work behind the scenes. All the same, we know your job is vitally important. Could you tell our readers what role you play?

DVP: Train Controllers perform a very critical role in the functioning of the Indian Railways. We plan, execute, control and monitor all activities regarding train operations round the clock. Whenever there is a breakdown or disaster, we have to take charge, plan, monitor and supervise all the remedial activities. Our job is highly strenuous and once on duty we have to be completely engaged with our job. That is why our category is classified as “intensive” and our duty hours are restricted to 6 hours per day. Without our work, trains will not run. We are known as the “Brain” and “Nerve Centre” of the Indian Railways. That will give your readers an idea of how vital our work is.

MEL: How safe are your working conditions? Have there been any casualties among train controllers due to unsafe working conditions?

DVP:  Working conditions are such that that there is no direct danger to life. However there are many hidden dangers, some of which become apparent only in the long run.

We have to work throughout in air conditioned rooms since that is necessary for the machinery we use. As a result during the ongoing pandemic, 30% of the train controllers have already tested positive for Corona, which is among the highest from all categories. As per the SOP issued by the Railways for managing the pandemic, all those who worked in close association with a person who tested positive should be home quarantined until tested negative. But this is not being followed in control offices. If this would have been followed, more than 30% of the control offices would have been shut down by this time, adversely affecting the train movement. But we fulfilled our duties despite the danger of getting infected, without closing any control office, to ensure that the chain of supply of essential goods is not disrupted and passenger services are maintained.

We do not have time to even drink a cup of tea or go to the washroom and we have to be continuously seated with our eyes glued to the control board. This causes considerable strain on the eyes and that is harmful in the long run. Improper maintenance of AC plants, overcrowded and congested premises, improper cleaning of premises and so on, cause silent disorders i.e. disorders that are not immediately apparent.  Consistently high stress eventually results in diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes and so on. Medical science has established that sitting without a break for long hours results in problems of the circulatory system as well as postural problems like back pain, neck pain, etc.

MEL: What is the total number of train controllers, currently employed in the Indian Railways and what is the actual sanctioned number of train controllers in the Indian Railways?

DVP: There are only about 2250 train controllers, though the number of sanctioned posts is about 2700.

MEL: How does do your conditions of work affect the safety and comfort of the rail passengers?

DVP: Due to the acute shortage of staff, train controllers are forced to work without adequate rest, causing direct impact on the safety of train operations. A weekly rest of 40 hours was sanctioned for the controllers by the Railway Board in the year 2016. But many zones have not implemented the Railway Board’s orders till now.

In fact, the Central Railway authorities have opposed this order of the Railway Board in a letter written in November 2016, saying that even running staff (loco pilots and guards) are given only 30 hours of weekly rest, so why should train controllers be given 40 hours! This is a case of one wrong being used to justify another, both to the detriment of all who travel by train. In the same letter they also complained that giving additional rest to controllers would mean that extra manpower would have to be deployed! So the authorities are more concerned with extracting more work out of us with lesser number of staff than providing the mandatory rest due to us or ensuring safety of the passengers! Our train controllers are hence overworked and lack the necessary rest. Besides having a long term deleterious impact on our health, this can have serious consequences for the safety of train operations.

MEL: How many contract workers are employed as train controllers?

DVP:  There are no contract workers. However, since the vacancies are not getting filled, in order to run the system, untrained candidates from the feeder categories are being made to work as controllers on an ad-hoc basis in most divisions, endangering the safety and quality of operations. Even though there are strict instructions from the Safety Department, to give proper training for ad-hoc controllers before giving them independent charge, these are not being followed in most places. To add to the crisis, medically decategorised (declared medically unfit) persons from the other departments are being posted as controllers to fill the existing vacancies, thus badly affecting the safety and quality in the control operations.

MEL: How has the step-by-step privatisation in the Indian Railways affected train controllers?

DVP: Privatisation will definitely increase the pressure on our work since private trains will have to be given priority and a good path over the other trains in the already congested sections. These sections will become more congested, adding to our daily work pressure.

MEL: Are the Railways taking any steps  towards filling the number of vacancies?

DVP: No, the Railways are in fact moving in the opposite direction.

There are two channels for recruitment. Firstly, the direct recruitment of Traffic Apprentices (from among whom train controllers also used to be selected) has been discontinued. This means that this channel has been totally blocked. The second channel is the selection of controllers from the feeder categories, like the Station Masters, Guards and Shunting TNC’s. Though on paper this channel is open, in reality this channel has also more or less been closed.

Up to the 1990s, for a single vacancy of a controller’s post, hundreds used to apply from the feeder categories. From these aspirants, highly qualified candidates used to be filtered through a very tough selection procedure. This involved an interview and then a written test followed by training and a final exam.

Candidates thus selected from out of hundreds of aspirants  used to be absorbed as section controllers. Control offices of high calibre, real brain centres with command and control used to exist.

Up to the 4th Pay Commission, in the 1990s, the controller was kept at two grades higher than the feeder categories. But from the Fourth Pay Commission onwards, the grades of the controllers started deteriorating and now in real terms controllers are drawing less emoluments than the feeder categories!

If there is no substantive benefit when shouldering a higher and tougher responsibility, it is natural that nobody will apply from the feeder categories and certainly not the worthy candidates! And this is what is happening now. There is a very poor response or no response from the feeder categories for filling the vacancies in Control category.

Now Control offices are recruiting medically decategorised (those declared medically unfit) persons from other departments and untrained candidates, thus compromising the quality and safety in train operations. This puts an unbearable burden on senior controllers, because they are held responsible for mishaps that may occur. Many senior controllers have been unable to bear this additional pressure and have opted for VRS.

MEL: What steps has your union taken to bring these problems to the notice of the authorities and how have the authorities responded?

DVP: For the last 20 years our Association has been bringing all these problems to the notice of the authorities, right up to the Railway Ministers and the Central Pay Commissioners. But they are just not interested in solving the actual problems and this is affecting the quality and safety in the system very badly. All of our efforts have not made them act upon the seriousness of the situation.

MEL: Thank you for informing our readers about the condition of the train controllers in the Indian Railways. We fully support your demands and consider it important for all railway workers as well as the entire working class to support these just demands. 

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